Opioid lawsuit bill stalls in Florida committee chaired by sister-in-law of Walgreens lobbyist

The attorney general wants access to a state database to show that drug makers and distributors recklessly supplied Floridians with opioids.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers
Published April 22, 2019|Updated April 22, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is suing the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors, accusing them of recklessly supplying Floridians with millions of drugs per year.

But a bill that is critical to the lawsuit moving forward has stalled in the committee of a powerful lawmaker: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto.

The Fort Myers Republican said her committee won’t hear it because of concerns that it could invade the privacy of patients. She said her objections aren’t related to her brother-in-law.

That would be Chris Hansen, a lobbyist whose clients include Walgreens — one of the defendants in Moody’s lawsuit.

“I haven’t spoken to him about the issue, and I’ve actually been chair of the committee for three times longer than I’ve been his brother-in-law,” she said.

Benacquisto’s decision could jeopardize Florida’s potential multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the drug companies.

If the bill doesn’t pass, it would be a major win for Walgreens and its co-defendants, while delivering a surprising loss to Moody in the Republican’s first months in office.

Senate Bill 1700 would allow Moody’s lawyers to access the prescription drug monitoring program, a Florida Department of Health database of patients’ opioid prescriptions created to crack down on the pill mill epidemic of the 2000s.

Moody needs the database to show specific examples that Walgreens, along with its rival CVS, “raced to sell as many opioids as possible” in Florida while failing to stop suspicious shipments of drugs, as the lawsuit alleges.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody [BRONTE WITTPENN | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody [BRONTE WITTPENN | Tampa Bay Times]

Already, lawyers for those companies and others have asked a Pasco County circuit judge to dismiss the state’s case, since the state has struggled to point to specific examples of wrongdoing. The judge rejected it.

If they got the access to the data, Moody’s lawyers still would not see patients’ names. Names, dates of birth and sex would be removed.

To prevent the bill from passing, many of the companies being sued have shifted their courtroom battle to the Capitol, where they’ve lobbied lawmakers.

“The only ones opposing this bill are the ones being sued, specifically Walgreens,” Chief Deputy Attorney General John Guard told lawmakers earlier this month.

Benacquisto, who married Hansen’s brother in late 2017, said her fellow senators have serious concerns over the bill’s potential threat to patient privacy.

She called the idea that she would be swayed by someone else “offensive.” And she pointed to the fact that she has supported other bills loathed by the pharmaceutical industry, including a proposal this year that would allow prescription drugs be imported from Canada.

“I think (Attorney General) Moody is amazing. She’s doing incredible work,” Benacquisto said Friday. But, “I know many of my colleagues really don’t like this bill. It isn’t me alone.”

Hansen declined to comment. A Walgreens spokesman declined to comment other than saying, “we are no longer opposing the bill.”

Getting the data from the state isn’t Moody’s only option. The attorney’s general office could get it from the companies themselves through the discovery process, but that could be expensive and the companies could drag the process out for years.

If Florida can bring a strong case, with good examples, they could win hundreds of millions, or billions. In March, Oklahoma’s attorney general won a $270 million settlement from Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, which is just one of the companies Florida is suing.

While the House is expected to pass their version of the bill, their colleagues in the Senate have been lukewarm to the idea at best.

Democratic Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, voted against it at its last committee stop. She did not say why during that committee, and did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, voted for it at the same meeting, but said the database was never intended for the attorney general to have such broad access to it.

“I have deep concerns about the promises that were made when this database was set up,” Baxley said.

The bill would only give the attorney general a unique identifying number for each patient, along with the patient’s year of birth and their city, county, and zip code. They could only use the information as evidence in a civil, criminal or administrative suit against a pharmacy or dispenser.

“We have spoken with our experts regarding the risk of reidentification and they have assured us that it would be nearly impossible because we are not getting gender or date of birth,” said Lauren Schenone, Moody’s spokeswoman.