Justice Department sues Walmart, alleging role in opioid crisis
The Justice Department sued Walmart on Tuesday for allegedly contributing to the nation’s opioid crisis, accusing the nation’s largest retailer of failing to properly screen for abuse in its prescribing practices.
The federal government alleged that the company pressured its pharmacy employees to fill prescriptions as quickly as possible and discouraged scrutiny of them. The lawsuits asserts that this emphasis on speed made it difficult to reject suspicious prescriptions and allegedly contributed to the opioid epidemic.
The lawsuit alleges that the company disregarded claims that its pharmacies were understaffed and that the emphasis on quick sales was a public health risk. It accuses the company of setting up hurdles to rejecting prescriptions from doctors suspected of overprescribing. The company’s compliance managers, the lawsuit claims, failed to share information between stores to allow pharmacies to identify suspected overprescribers.
The lawsuit alleges that a Texas Walmart pharmacy manager wrote in a 2015 email that “if all of us got together and started filling out refusal to fill” paperwork for a known overprescriber, “that is all we would do all day long.”
“Other chains are refusing to fill for him which makes our burden even greater. Please help us,” the email added.
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Division, said in a statement that “[a]s 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.”
“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,” Clark said.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, Clark claimed that Walmart violated the Controlled Substances Act, both as a pharmacy for dispensing controlled substances, as well as by a distributor for failing to detect and report the drug orders.
The DOJ added in Tuesday’s call that “hundreds of thousands” of suspicious orders went unreported, with some prescriptions that pharmacists should have flagged as amounts that “people would have died from.”
In addition to Texas, the lawsuit also says that controlled substances were improperly filled at Walmart pharmacies in New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Colorado and several other states across the country.
Pharmacies in Florida, which has been hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic, are also included in the lawsuit.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Maria Chapa Lopez told reporters in Tuesday’s call that certain “pill mill” doctors purposely sent individuals to Walmart because the prescriptions “wouldn’t be filled elsewhere.”
The DOJ, whose lawsuit was filed in the civil division, told reporters Tuesday that it could not comment on whether criminal charges will eventually be brought against Walmart, nor if other pharmaceutical chains are also being investigated.
The retail giant in October preemptively sued the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over the expected lawsuit, accusing the federal government of seeking to blame it for gaps in its own enforcement and regulation.
In its lawsuit, Walmart says nearly seven in 10 doctors flagged by the federal government still have active registrations with the DEA.
“In other words, defendants want to blame Walmart for continuing to fill purportedly bad prescriptions written by doctors that DEA and state regulators enabled to write those prescriptions in the first place and continue to stand by today,” the lawsuit states.
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