United States sues Walmart for helping fuel America’s opioid crisis

The United States Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Walmart alleging that the retail giant filled “thousands of invalid prescriptions” for powerful painkillers, helping fuel America’s opioid crisis.

Walmart runs more than 5,000 pharmacies across the country. Until 2018, the chain was a wholesale distributor of controlled substances for its own pharmacies, giving it extensive reach into many communities.

The civil complaint points to the role Walmart’s pharmacies may have played in the crisis by filling opioid prescriptions and by unlawfully distributing controlled substances to the pharmacies during the height of the opioid crisis.

“As a nationwide dispenser and distributor of opioids, and given the sheer number of pharmacies it operates, Walmart was uniquely well positioned to prevent the illegal diversion of opioids,” the 160-page civil suit, filed in Delaware federal court, said.

“Yet, for years, as the prescription drug abuse epidemic ravaged the country, Walmart abdicated those responsibilities,” the suit added.

In response, Walmart said the suit was “riddled with factual inaccuracies”.

The DoJ document said the company “knowingly violated well established rules requiring it to scrutinize controlled-substance prescriptions to ensure that they were valid – that is, issued by prescribers in a legitimate manner for legitimate purposes, not for purposes of abuse or other diversion,” the suit continued. While Walmart was legally required to check potential red flags, it “made little effort to ensure that it complied with them”.

The DoJ contends that Walmart has committed “hundreds of thousands of violations” of the Controlled Substances Act. If Walmart is found liable for violating this act, each unlawfully filled prescription could result in a USD $67,627 penalty. Each suspicious order that was not reported to authorities could result in a penalty of up to USD $15,691. Civil penalties could reach “billions”, the DoJ said.

More than 232,000 people died in the US from opioid-involved overdoses between 1999 and 2018, according to the DoJ.

In a statement, Walmart said that the DoJ’s investigation was “tainted by historical ethics violations, and this lawsuit invents a legal theory that unlawfully forces pharmacists to come between patients and their doctors, and is riddled with factual inaccuracies and cherry-picked documents taken out of context”.

“Blaming pharmacists for not second-guessing the very doctors the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) approved to prescribe opioids is a transparent attempt to shift blame from DEA’s well-documented failures in keeping bad doctors from prescribing opioids in the first place,” the company said.

Walmart recently sued the DoJ and DEA, alleging that authorities wrongly ascribed blame to the company. The retailer’s suit wants a federal judge to determine that the government does not have grounds to pursue civil damages, according to the Associated Press.