The federal government filed suit against Walmart on Tuesday, accusing the retail chain of fueling the opioid epidemic in the United States by filling thousands of invalid prescriptions for the addictive painkillers.
The Department of Justice filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware after concluding a multi-year investigation of the retailer, alleging that Walmart pharmacies “filled thousands upon thousands of invalid prescriptions” in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, according to the complaint.
“We entrust distributors and dispensers with the responsibility to ensure controlled substances do not fall into the wrong hands,” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) acting Administrator Timothy Shea said in a statement. “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. Too many lives have been lost because of oversight failures and those entrusted with responsibility turning a blind eye.”
The lawsuit alleges that Walmart failed to investigate “red flags” suggesting that certain prescriptions for opioids were illegitimate, and placed “enormous pressure” on its pharmacists “to process a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible” without authorizing them to reject prescriptions from questionable prescribers.
The DOJ also charged Walmart of breaking federal law as a distributor by failing to report to the DEA “at least hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders.”
“This failure enabled Walmart’s pharmacies to place and receive controlled-substance orders that went essentially unmonitored, even when those orders were suspicious and could have revealed that diversion was ongoing,” the lawsuit states.
Walmart has been expecting the federal lawsuit for months and preemptively filed its own suit against the government in October alleging that the laws surrounding opioid prescriptions and pharmacies needed clarification. In a statement issued Tuesday, the retail chain hit back at the DOJ’s claims.
“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. “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 retailer said that it authorized its pharmacists to reject “problematic opioids prescriptions” and sent the DEA “thousands” of tips on the distribution of potentially illicit opioid prescriptions.
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. “We will keep defending our pharmacists as we fight this new lawsuit in court.”