DOJ sues Walmart over alleged role in opioids crisis; retailer fires back

Marianne Wilson
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The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against Walmart Inc. alleging violations of the Controlled Substances Act. 

The civil complaint alleges that Walmart unlawfully dispensed controlled substances from its pharmacies  and unlawfully distributed controlled substances to those pharmacies throughout the height of the prescription opioid crisis. According to the complaint, Walmart’s alleged unlawful conduct resulted in hundreds of thousands of violations of the Controlled Substances Act, for which the Justice Department is seeking civil penalties that could total in the billions of dollars, and injunctive relief.

“As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale drug distributors in the country, Walmart had the responsibility and the means to help prevent the diversion of prescription opioids,” said Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the civil division, in a DOJ release. “Instead, for years, it did the opposite — filling thousands of invalid prescriptions at its pharmacies and failing to report suspicious orders of opioids and other drugs placed by those pharmacies. This unlawful conduct contributed to the epidemic of opioid abuse throughout the United States.”

The lawsuit claims that Walmart pressured its  pharmacy employees to fill prescriptions quickly, which made it difficult for pharmacists to reject invalid prescriptions, enabling widespread drug abuse. It also alleges that the retailer disregarded claims that its pharmacies were understaffed and that the emphasis on quick sales was a public health risk, and accuses the company of setting up roadblocks to rejecting prescriptions from doctors suspected of overprescribing, reported The Hill.  

In a statement issued shortly after the compliant was made public, Walmart said the 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 retailer stated.  

The suit did not come as a surprise to Walmart, which sued the federal government in October in a pre-emptive move to fight the allegations. Walmart alleged that the government was blaming the retailer for the lack of regulatory and enforcement policies to help stop the crisis.

“We are bringing this lawsuit because there is no federal law requiring pharmacists to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship to the degree DOJ is demanding, and in fact expert federal and state health agencies routinely say it is not allowed and potentially harmful to patients with legitimate medical needs,” Walmart stated in October.