DOJ sues Walmart, alleges it helped drive the opioid crisis

PUBLISHED Dec. 23, 2020 Retail dive

Dive Brief:

  • The Department of Justice sued Walmart on Tuesday, alleging that the retail giant, with its 5,000 pharmacies, filled thousands of improper opioid prescriptions and "shirked" its role as a distributor of the drugs.

  • The department accused Walmart of violating the Controlled Substances Act and is seeking civil penalties that could add up to billions of dollars.

  • Walmart, which sued the DOJ and Drug Enforcement Agency in October for more clarity around compliance, fired back with a scathing statement. In it, the retailer said it has blocked "thousands of questionable doctors" and "always empowered" its pharmacists to refuse filling problematic opioid prescriptions. Dive Insight: In its complaint against Walmart, the DOJ alleged that even as the opioid epidemic raged, the retailer was "systematically failing to comply with its legal responsibilities to protect against the diversion of prescription drugs." The agency specifically said Walmart managers prioritized speed in operations and pressured pharmacists to fill prescriptions as quickly as possible. That approach led the company to "fill thousands upon thousands of controlled substance prescriptions that Walmart knew, in multiple ways, were highly likely to be invalid," the Justice Department alleged. Prosecutors also said in the complaint that Walmart filled prescriptions from sources that other pharmacies denied and that "some of those pill-mill prescribers specifically told their patients to fill their prescriptions at Walmart." The agency also slammed Walmart's drug distribution operations, saying that the retailer's "grossly inadequate suspicious-order monitoring program contributed to its failure to stop diversion of controlled substances at its pharmacies." "Had the company identified and investigated its hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders, it could have stopped the pharmacies that were placing those orders from unlawfully filling controlled-substance prescriptions or otherwise contributing to the diversion of controlled substances," prosecutors said in the complaint. Walmart on Tuesday fired right back at the Justice Department over its lawsuit. "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," Walmart said in a statement. The company added, "Blaming pharmacists for not second-guessing the very doctors 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." According to ProPublica, federal prosecutors came close to bringing criminal charges against Walmart for its alleged role in the opioid epidemic, but Trump Administration appointees in the department blocked an indictment. A Walmart spokesperson told ProPublica at the time of its report that the charges were "meritless" and part of an effort to "extort an unjustified civil settlement" from Walmart. The DOJ lawsuit comes at a time when Walmart is trying to expand its healthcare offering, including with its "Walmart Health Center" concept, and by seeking a role in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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