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Justice Department sues Walmart over its role in opioid crisis

A woman transfers groceries from a cart to her vehicle outside a Walmart store in Pearl, Miss., in March.
A woman transfers groceries from a cart to her vehicle outside a Walmart store in Pearl, Miss., in March.
(Associated Press)

The Justice Department sued Walmart, alleging the company unlawfully dispensed controlled substances through its pharmacies, helping to fuel the opioid crisis in America.

The civil complaint filed Tuesday points to the role Walmart’s pharmacies may have played in the opioid crisis by unlawfully distributing controlled substances during the height of the crisis. Walmart operates more than 5,000 pharmacies in its stores around the country.

The Justice Department alleges Walmart violated federal law by filling prescriptions its pharmacists “knew were invalid,” said Jeffrey Clark, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s civil division.

Federal law requires companies that dispense controlled substances to be on the lookout for suspicious orders and report them to the Drug Enforcement Administration, but prosecutors say the company didn’t do that.

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“Walmart knew that its distribution centers were using an inadequate system for detecting and reporting suspicious orders,” said Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney in Colorado. “As a result of this inadequate system, for years Walmart reported virtually no suspicious orders at all. In other words, Walmart’s pharmacies ordered opioids in a way that went essentially unmonitored and unregulated.”

The 160-page suit alleges that Walmart made it difficult for its pharmacists to follow the rules, putting “enormous pressure” on them to fill a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible, while denying them the authority to categorically refuse to fill orders from prescribers who the pharmacists knew were continually issuing invalid prescriptions.

Walmart fought back in an emailed statement to the Associated Press, saying that the Justice Department’s investigation is “tainted by historical ethics violations.” It said the “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 that it always empowered its pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioid prescriptions, and that they refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions. Walmart also said it sent the DEA tens of thousands of investigative leads, and it blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at its pharmacies.

The federal lawsuit comes nearly two months after Walmart filed its own preemptive lawsuit against the Justice Department, Atty. Gen. William Barr and the DEA.

In its lawsuit, Walmart said the Justice Department’s investigation — launched in 2016 — had identified hundreds of doctors who wrote problematic prescriptions that Walmart’s pharmacists should not have filled. But the lawsuit said that nearly 70% of the doctors still have active registrations with the DEA.

“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 in its statement.

Walmart’s lawsuit alleged the government was blaming the company for its own lack of regulatory and enforcement policies to stem the crisis. The company is asking a federal judge to declare the government has no basis to seek civil damages.

The initial investigation was the subject of a ProPublica report published in March. ProPublica said that Joe Brown, then the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, spent years pursuing a criminal case against Walmart for its opioid prescription practices, only to have it stymied after the retail giant’s lawyers appealed to senior officials in the Justice Department.

Two months later, Brown resigned. He didn’t give a reason for his departure except to say he would be “pursuing opportunities in the private and public sectors.” Brown went into private practice in the Dallas area.


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