Story at a glance

  • The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit alleging Walmart knowingly filled illegitimate opioid prescriptions and did not report them.
  • The chain superstore could pay billions in damages.

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) announced today that it is filing a nationwide lawsuit against superstore Walmart for violating the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). 

 

 

The complaint alleges that Walmart unlawfully dispensed prescription opioids from their pharmacies and unlawfully distributed the painkillers from their pharmacy, fueling the prescription opioid crisis in the U.S. 

According to DOJ officials, Walmart violated the CSA primarily through the illegal filling of thousands of prescriptions that were not issued for medical use. When receiving these fraudulent orders, the chain store continued to fill them rather than report them to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). 

The federal agency seeks civil penalties in the form of billions of dollars. 

“It has been a priority of this administration to hold accountable those responsible for the prescription opioid crisis.  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,” Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division Jeffrey Bossert Clark said in prepared comments. 

If Walmart is found liable, damages could amount up to $67,627 for each unlawful prescription filled and $15,691 for each suspicious order not reported.

Multiple state attorneys were involved in the investigation into Walmart’s pharmaceutical practices, including attorneys from the District of Colorado, District of Delaware, Eastern District of North Carolina, Eastern District of New York, and Middle District of Florida. 

“Today’s complaint is the culmination of a painstaking investigation by my office and our Department of Justice colleagues that uncovered years of unlawful conduct that did untold damage to communities around the country, including here in Colorado,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado Jason Dunn said. “We look forward to pursuing justice and holding the company accountable for its conduct.”

Walmart issued a response on Tuesday, saying that the DOJ's investigation is "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."

The store also noted that it previously sued the DOJ back in October, along with the DEA. The suit asked a federal court to clarify the roles and responsibilities pharmacists have beneath the CSA.

The opioid epidemic can be traced to the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies manufactured and distributed opioid pain relievers like OxyContin, Percocet and Roxicodone, with assurances that they were not addictive. 

This claim was revealed to be patently false and led to millions of people to misuse, abuse and form a dependency on opioids. In some cases, when people could not have access to prescription opioids, they turned to illegal substances like heroin and fentanyl.

Rates of overdoses on both prescription and nonprescription opioids are staggering; national data notes that more than 750,000 people have died from overdosing on opioids in the last two decades, and 2 million people reported having an opioid addiction disorder in 2018. 

The opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency in 2017.

Blame has gradually focused on big pharma companies for obfuscating data and other information that revealed opioids’ addictive tendencies. 

Doctors are also being held accountable for frequently prescribing opioids despite the documented lack of safety, with some receiving payment from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe and consult on opioid medication. 

“I don’t know if the money is causing the prescribing or the prescribing led to the money, but in either case, it’s potentially a vicious cycle. It’s cementing the idea for these physicians that prescribing this many opioids is creating value,” said Michael Barnett, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard Chan School, to reporters.


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Published on Dec 22, 2020