The U.S. government is suing Rite Aid, alleging that the pharmacy chain missed "obvious red flags" and illegally filled hundreds of thousands of prescriptions for controlled substances, including opioids.
The Justice Department complaint states that from 2014 to 2019, Rite Aid pharmacists knowingly filled prescriptions that were "medically unnecessary," prescribed off-label, or "were not issued in the usual course of professional practice."
The complaint says pharmacists ignored red flags like "trinities" of opioids, benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants, plus "early fills" of prescriptions that should not yet have run out. They allegedly filled prescriptions for very high doses or quantities of opioids, or from prescribers already flagged as "writing illegitimate prescriptions."
Rite Aid was also accused of intentionally deleting internal software notes left by pharmacists like "cash only pill mill???" and "writing excessive dose(s) for oxycodone." The complaint alleges that a Government Affairs analyst at Rite Aid told one such pharmacist "to always be very cautious of what is put in writing."
Rite Aid representatives declined to comment on the allegations due to them being part of "a litigation matter." According to its website, it owns more than 2,300 pharmacy locations across 17 states.
Along with the Controlled Substances Act, the government alleges that Rite Aid violated the federal False Claims Act by submitting "false or fraudulent claims" for reimbursement to federal healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
“The Justice Department is using every tool at our disposal to confront the opioid epidemic that is killing Americans and shattering communities across the country,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a press release. “That includes holding corporations, like Rite Aid, accountable for knowingly filling unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances.”
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta added that the company's actions "opened the floodgates for millions of opioid pills and other controlled substances to flow illegally out of Rite Aid's stores."
The U.S. joined a whistleblower lawsuit in the Northern District of Ohio, originally filed in 2019 by three former Rite Aid employees.
Opioids have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. in the past two decades, with the most casualties occurring in recent years. The drugs responsible for the bulk of the deaths have shifted from prescription painkillers to illicitly produced fentanyl, which is often being mixed into other street drugs.
In the 2010s, state and local governments filed thousands of lawsuits seeking to hold the drug industry accountable for the crisis. Some key drugmakers, distribution companies and other pharmacies have already agreed to settlements.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.