State of Florida bickers with drug companies over opioid pricing and profits info

Cardinal Health, one of the country's major drug distributors, is fighting Florida's attempt to glean how much profit the company has made distributing pain medications, as the state tries to recoup money spent combating opioid addiction and overdoses.

The wrangling over Cardinal's profits comes in a lawsuit filed more than two years ago by the Florida attorney general's office seeking unspecified damages against drug manufacturers, retailers and distributors. The case is one of myriad similar legal challenges throughout the country about the devastation wrought by opioids such as oxycodone. The Florida litigation includes a tangle over records sought by Attorney General Ashley Moody in the state's effort to collect information about pain pill distribution and prescriptions going back more than two decades.

Pasco County Circuit Judge Kimberly Sharpe last week gave Walgreen Co., known as Walgreens, 90 days to turn over dozens of categories of dispensing data from 1996 through the present from prescriptions for 39 different drugs. The information comes from prescriptions for 14 opioids, such as codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone; 14 types of benzodiazepines, including diazepam; several muscle relaxers; six types of sleeping pills; and naloxone, an opioid treatment. The sought-after Walgreens prescription data also includes the names of prescribing physicians or health care providers; names of pharmacists dispensing the drugs; "unique" identifying numbers associated with patients; and the types of identification used by people picking up prescriptions.

Moody's office is also seeking information about the drugs' retail prices, the costs of the drugs to the pharmacy and the amounts charged to third-party payers for each of the prescriptions, requests that caused Walgreens to balk.

"The state appears to have included these topics for the purposes of attempting to devise some calculation of Walgreens' profits from opioid sales. None of them are relevant to the question to whether an individual prescription was properly filled," the pharmacy chain's lawyers wrote in a status report filed this month.

Sharpe's Nov. 23 order, however, requires Walgreens to provide the pricing information.

Cardinal is also pushing back against the state's requests for information about its finances.

The state is seeking "documents showing Cardinal Health's revenues and profits from sales or distribution of opioids in Florida — information that is indisputably relevant to damages, among other issues in this case," lawyers representing Moody's office wrote in a status report filed on Nov. 17.

Some records already produced by Cardinal show that the company "appears to track and can identify sales or distribution of and profits from opioids in Florida," the state's lawyers argued.

Cardinal, however, said it doesn't have the documentation the state is seeking.

"This is litigation for litigation's sake," lawyers for the distributor wrote in a response last week. "Cardinal Health has plainly and repeatedly answered the state's question: Cardinal Health does not 'calculate or report profitability for pharmaceutical products' in the regular course of business."

But the state is pushing the issue.

"Fundamentally, Cardinal still has not provided profits for opioid sales and distribution in Florida and still has not directly stated whether it is unable to do so — or is instead unwilling to do so," the state's lawyers wrote.

But, quoting from a 1999 Florida appeals-court ruling in a separate case, Cardinal's lawyers argued that the state "is not entitled to have (Cardinal Health) respond to a request to produce by creating a non-existent document."

Several weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced it had reached a settlement with Purdue Pharma LP and individual shareholders of the Sackler family for more than $8 billion, after the company was charged with conspiracy and fraud related to sales of its opioid products, including OxyContin, a brand name for pills that contain oxycodone. Purdue Pharma is among more than a dozen defendants in the Florida litigation.

The dispute over the distributors' and pharmacy chain's profits in the Florida lawsuit comes amid reports that opioid overdoses and deaths have climbed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cardinal Health, Walgreens and CVS — another defendant in the Florida case — have already paid high prices for their pain-medication sales or distribution in Florida.

In a 2012 settlement, Cardinal Health was banned from shipping and selling narcotics from its Lakeland facility for two years. Four years later, Cardinal agreed to pay $44 million to finalize the civil settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Walgreens agreed to an $80 million penalty in 2013 related to dispensing of highly addictive narcotics.

And, earlier this year, CVS agreed to pay $22 million in fines after Drug Enforcement Administration investigators revealed that employees at two of the chain's Sanford stores were doling out controlled substances without legitimate prescriptions. Three years ago, federal authorities stopped the stores from dispensing a number of highly addictive controlled substances, including oxycodone. 

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