Pharmacy chains sued for refusing legal prescription for opioid medication

National class action lawsuits were filed this month against the country’s largest pharmacy chains after they allegedly refused to fill legitimate opioid prescriptions for people with chronic pain.

Susan Smith, 43, a mother from Castro Valley, California, filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against Walgreens and Costco, alleging that the pharmacies refused to fill her legal prescriptions for opioid medication. On behalf of herself and other plaintiffs, Smith alleged that the companies’ practices were discriminatory.

“After being harassed by pharmacists [and] pharmacy staff for a number of years — being laughed at, being called names in front of my child — I really couldn’t take it anymore,” Smith said. “It has been really stressful, demoralizing, not to mention discriminating. On top of that, they were making it really hard for me to live a pain-free life.”

Smith was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 17 due to repeated head trauma from child abuse, causing grand mal seizures. Her epilepsy worsened, leading to debilitating migraines almost daily. In 2010, Smith suffered a seizure while driving and got into a car accident. She suffered from severe injuries to her right leg, Smith said, and she was prescribed opioid medication.

Smith’s seizures became uncontrollable, severely damaging her brain. After undergoing brain surgery, Smith was left with near constant migraine headaches so severe that she cannot walk at times, suffering from bouts of nausea and vomiting, the lawsuit stated.

Traditional anti-seizure and migraine medications are not viable options, the lawsuit stated, as Smith has 15 documented medical allergies.

“My doctors had tried a number of other medications, and morphine was the one that gave me the most relief,” Smith said. “It does not take away my pain completely. It only provides some relief.”

Smith has been prescribed with morphine, an opioid found in the opium poppy plant, for her chronic pain since 2011. And since 2012, she has taken the same dose prescribed by the same physician, the lawsuit stated.

For the past eight years, however, Smith has had difficulties with pharmacists at Walgreens and Costco to fill her opioid prescription, according to the lawsuit.

“Due to the opioid epidemic, they see all chronic pain patients as criminals,” Smith said. “They think that we’re all in there as drug seekers.”

After an orthopedic surgery in 2017, Smith’s physician prescribed her with additional pain medications. Smith said a pharmacist at Walgreens checked her prescription and found that she was taking another pain medication. Thus, the pharmacist said she couldn’t fill the prescription, according to Smith. The pharmacist questioned whether her doctor knew whether or not she was already taking morphine, Smith said.

“I said ‘yes, in fact he told me that if you had any issues that you could call him,’” Smith said. “And she told me that she did not need to call him and rather I should look into rehab instead of pain medication.”

Smith had had surgery less than an hour prior to the encounter, she said. Her arm was bandaged and her leg was wrapped up with bandage and gauze.

“It was really apparent that I just had surgery,” Smith said. “And we took the prescription and left. I went home that night and was without that extra pain medication.”

The encounter was just one instance among others of alleged discrimination and refusal from pharmacies to fill her legal prescription.

Walgreens declined to comment on the lawsuit due to ongoing litigation. Costco did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

Another class action lawsuit filed in Rhode Island was brought by Edith Fuog, 48 year-old mother from Florida, against CVS Pharmacy and Caremark PhC, a subsidiary of CVS. Fuog was diagnosed with stage-1 breast cancer in 2011. She subsequently developed a host of conditions such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a form of flesh eating bacteria, according to the lawsuit. And CVS Pharmacy had allegedly refused to fill her legitimate opioid prescriptions, according to the lawsuit.

“These are people that have severe medical diagnoses that require pain medication,” said Scott Hirsch, one of the lead attorneys handling the cases. “They are seeking a physician’s help. They are undergoing treatment and they are following everything under the rules. And the pharmacies — through their policies — are discriminating against them and refusing to fill their prescription.”

Prior to the crackdown on opioids, Hirsch said, pharmacies were filling opioid prescriptions to people who should not have had their prescriptions filled. Now, the pendulum has swung to the other way. After the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidelines for opioid prescription, pharmacies have “taken the CDC guidelines — which are really meant for acute pain patients — and they’re blanketly applying them as gospels.”

CVS Pharmacy and Caremark PhC did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

“I just hope to bring awareness to the issue and that justice will be served to all the chronic pain patients out there so that they don’t have to go through the horrible, demoralizing and unfair practices being brought forth by Walgreens, Costco, CVS, and other pharmacies,” Smith said.

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