Walmart Sued by DOJ Over Opioid Crisis

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Walmart Sued by DOJ Over Opioid Crisis

By Marian Zboraj - 12/23/2020
Walmart Sued by DOJ Over Opioid Crisis
Walmart claims that the DOJ's lawsuit is riddled with factual inaccuracies and cherry-picked documents taken out of context.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Walmart Inc. over its role in the opioid crisis.

The complaint alleges that, as the operator of its pharmacies, Walmart knowingly filled thousands of controlled-substance prescriptions that were not issued for legitimate medical purposes. The lawsuit also claims that, as the operator of its distribution centers, Walmart received hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders that it failed to report as required to by the DEA. Together, the complaint alleges, these actions helped to fuel the prescription opioid crisis. 

“As a pharmacy that fills prescriptions for controlled substances, Walmart has an obligation to fill only those prescriptions that are legitimate,” said Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme. “As a wholesale drug distributor, Walmart also had an obligation to notify DEA of suspicious orders of controlled substances. Walmart failed to comply with both of its obligations, and thereby failed in its responsibility to prevent the diversion of controlled substances.”

“We entrust distributors and dispensers with the responsibility to ensure controlled substances do not fall into the wrong hands,” said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Acting Administrator Timothy Shea. “When processes to safeguard against drug diversion are violated or ignored, or when pharmacies routinely fill illegitimate prescriptions, we will hold accountable anyone responsible, including Walmart.”

The Justice Department is seeking civil penalties in its lawsuit, which could total in the billions of dollars, and injunctive relief.

Meanwhile, Walmart is defending its pharmacists and plans to fight this new lawsuit in court. It claims that it has always empowered its pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioid prescriptions and actually refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions. Walmart even indicated that it sent DEA tens of thousands of investigative leads.

In a Dec. 22 statement released in response to the lawsuit, Walmart said: “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. Blaming pharmacists for not second-guessing the very doctors the 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.”

Walmart claims that the department’s lawsuit raises the issue of what a pharmacist should do with a prescription that's valid on its face and written by a state-licensed and DEA-approved doctor.

“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,” the company statement noted. "Ultimately, patients are caught in the middle."

Walmart has already sued the DOJ and DEA in October, asking a federal court to clarify the roles and responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act.

The retailer has been known to incorporate measures to help prevent opioid drug abuse and misuse. In May, the company said that it was installing safe medication disposal kiosks inside up to 1,000 pharmacy locations, and it created a virtual-reality tool for training first responders to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose. 

Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart operates more than 11,300 stores under 56 banners in 27 countries, and e-commerce websites, employing 2.2 million-plus associates worldwide. Walmart U.S. is No. 1 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer's list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America, while Walmart-owned Sam's Club ranks No. 9 on the list.