Justice Department sues Walmart, saying it fueled the nation’s opioid crisis

By Katie Benner and Michael Corkery

The Justice Department sued Walmart on Tuesday for what it said was the company’s role in fueling the nation’s opioid crisis by allowing its network of pharmacies to fill millions of prescriptions for opioids, thousands of which authorities said were suspicious.

The 160-page civil complaint alleges that Walmart knew its system for detecting questionable prescriptions was inadequate and details numerous instances in which employees warned federal authorities and company managers about suspicious prescriptions.

“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,” Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s civil division, said in a statement. “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.”

The lawsuit is a significant escalation in the government’s effort to hold major pharmacy chains responsible for their role in the opioid crisis. While much of the litigation around opioid addiction has focused on doctors and distributors, a lawsuit filed in federal court in May by two Ohio counties accused CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid of also fueling the problem. The retailers were accused of selling millions of pills in tiny communities, rewarding pharmacists with the highest volumes and promoting opioids as safe and effective.

Some of those big companies defended their actions by saying the responsibility to vet these prescriptions lies primarily with the physician, not the pharmacy.

On Tuesday, Walmart made a similar argument, saying the Justice Department was forcing retailers to “second guess” doctors and “putting pharmacists and pharmacies between a rock and a hard place with state health regulators who say they are already going too far in refusing to fill opioid prescriptions.”

But Justice Department officials say that for years Walmart willfully looked the other way when presented with “glaringly obvious red flags.”

In one instance alleged in the lawsuit, an employee identified only by initials admitted to the Drug Enforcement Administration to filling prescriptions that he or she knew were not legitimate.

At other times, Walmart pharmacists reported to the compliance unit at the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, that they had serious concerns about various prescribers, the suit says.

Walmart pharmacists in the Sarasota, Florida, area alerted the compliance unit about one doctor they described as “shady.” Some of his patients would come into the pharmacy slurring their words and showed signs of “narcotic abuse.” One pharmacist worried that a prescription from that doctor for oxycodone, methadone, Soma and Valium was a “cocktail of abuse.”

Despite these concerns, between 2014 and 2018, Walmart filled more than 3,500 “controlled-substance prescriptions” for this doctor. The doctor no longer has a medical license, according to the lawsuit.

The government also said pharmacists had filled prescriptions for doses so large that if the pills were taken as dispensed the patient would have most likely died. Walmart, according to the lawsuit, also filled prescriptions from well-known “pill mills” even when warned that these doctors were known to overprescribe.

The Justice Department said Walmart had shirked its responsibilities not only as a pharmacy dispensing pills to its customers but also as a major drug distributor to its own pharmacies, obligated to report suspicious prescriptions to the DEA.

“Given the nationwide scale of those violations, Walmart’s failures to follow basic legal rules helped fuel a national crisis,” the lawsuit stated.

Walmart preemptively denied the charges in October in a suit against the Trump administration, saying the company was being used as a scapegoat and blaming the opioid crisis on what it called the federal government’s own weak enforcement.

In its statement Tuesday, Walmart said the Justice Department’s investigation was “tainted by historical ethics violations” and “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 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 said.

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