Washington, D.C. (WorkersCompensation.com) – The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a nationwide lawsuit against Walmart Inc., for what it says is its part in the opioid epidemic.
In an announcement last week, DOJ attorneys alleged that Walmart Inc., “unlawfully dispensed controlled substances from pharmacies it operated across the country and unlawfully distributed controlled substances to those pharmacies through the height of the prescription opioid crisis.”
The DOJ complaint alleges that Walmart violated the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) hundreds of thousands of times, and could be on the hook for billions of dollars in civil penalties.
“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,” said Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division. “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. Today’s filing represents an important step in the effort to hold Walmart accountable for such conduct.”
In the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, officials say that Walmart knowingly filled thousands of controlled substance prescriptions for which there was no legitimate medical purpose.
DOJ attorneys said the company intentionally understaffed it more than 5,000 pharmacies nationwide, and then pressured those pharmacists to fill opioid prescriptions quickly. This practice, court document said, led pharmacists to knowingly filling prescriptions that came from ‘pill mills,’ as well as prescriptions that other Walmart pharmacies had flagged as invalid. As a result, Walmart shoppers who couldn’t get their prescription filled at one Walmart pharmacy, could shop around until they found another who would fill their prescription.
The complaint also alleges that while the company stopped distributing controlled substances in 2018, Walmart continued to receive hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders that it failed to report to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Those two actions, the Justice Department said, fueled the prescription opioid crisis in America. In response, Walmart pointed its finger at the Justice Department.
“The Justice Department’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 company said in a statement. “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 it “always empowered our pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioids prescriptions, and they refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions.” Additionally, the company said it sent tens of thousands of leads to the DEA and blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at their pharmacies.
“By demanding pharmacists and pharmacies second-guess doctors, the Justice Department is 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. Ultimately, patients are caught in the middle,” Walmart said in its statement.
If the courts find Walmart violated the CSA, the company could face civil penalties of up to $67,627 for each unlawful prescription filled and $15,691 for each suspicious order not reported, the DOJ said.
“For years, Walmart failed to meet its obligations in distributing and dispensing dangerous opioids and other drugs,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Feith of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch. “We look forward to advancing this case with our DOJ partners.”
In October, Walmart, in anticipation of the DOJ’s latest lawsuit against it, filed suit against the DOJ over its role in the opioid epidemic, asking the federal courts to clarify exactly what roles and responsibilities pharmacists and pharmacies have under the Controlled Substances Act.
“Walmart and our pharmacists are committed to helping address the opioid crisis that has affected so many. We are proud of our pharmacists, who help patients understand the risks about opioid prescriptions, and who have refused to fill hundreds of thousands of opioid prescriptions they thought could be problematic,” the company said in a statement in October. “Unfortunately, certain DOJ officials have long seemed more focused on chasing headlines than fixing the crisis. They are now threatening a completely unjustified lawsuit against Walmart, claiming in hindsight pharmacists should have refused to fill otherwise valid opioid prescriptions that were written by the very doctors that the federal government still approves to write prescriptions.”