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U.S. pharmacies strike first deals with counties over opioids

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By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK, July 13 (Reuters) - Pharmacy operators Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, CVS Health Corp, Rite Aid Corp and Walmart Inc have agreed to pay a combined $26 million to settle claims by two New York counties that they fueled an opioid addiction epidemic.

The settlements are the first reached by pharmacies in the ongoing nationwide litigation over opioids. The pharmacies did not admit wrongdoing.

Suffolk County's legislature approved the deals on Monday, while Nassau County's legislature is expected to vote on final approval next month.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States from 1999 to 2019. More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed in the United States against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies over the opioid epidemic.

Plaintiffs have accused drugmakers of falsely marketing opioids as safe, and distributors and pharmacies of ignoring red flags that they were being diverted to illegal channels. The defendants have denied the allegations.

CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said in an email that the settlement "reflects our position that opioid prescriptions are written by doctors, not pharmacists, and that opioid medications are made and marketed by manufacturers, not pharmacies."

The other pharmacies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The pharmacies settled the lawsuits last month shortly before they were to go to trial, though the agreements were not publicly disclosed at the time. Trial is now underway over the counties' and New York state's claims against the remaining defendants, a group of drugmakers and distributors.

Johnson & Johnson also settled before trial for $263 million.

The funds will be used for mental health and addiction programs, representatives of the counties said.

"While these settlements cannot repair the damage done or bring back those who we lost to the grips of this epidemic, it has already made a substantial impact," Suffolk Legislator Rob Calarco said in a statement. (Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Dan Grebler)

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