Walmart allegedly fueled the opioid epidemic by filling thousands of invalid prescriptions and failing to report suspicious orders to authorities, the Justice Department claimed in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Managers across Walmart’s 5,000 U.S pharmacies denied its pharmacists the authority to refuse to fill prescriptions from known “pill mills” and withheld related compliance data from their workers, federal regulators alleged in the complaint filed in federal court. While Walmart stopped distributing controlled substances in 2018, it had received hundreds of thousands of suspicious orders that it failed to report to the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to the lawsuit, which is seeking what could be billions of dollars in damages and limitations on its prescribing privileges.
Physicians allegedly directed their patients to Walmart to get their opioid prescriptions filled when other pharmacies weren’t filling them, said Robert Higdon Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
“Our office prosecuted a physician for illegal opioid distribution,” Higdon said in prepared remarks, adding that the doctor was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. “As it turns out, that physician expressly directed patients to Walmart to have their opioid prescriptions filled. Walmart’s own pharmacists reported concerns about the doctor up the corporate chain, but for years, Walmart did nothing—except continue to dispense thousands of opioid pills.”
Walmart said that it has always allowed its pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioid prescriptions. The company plans to defend its pharmacists and fight the lawsuit in court.
“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 Drug Enforcement Administration 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 said in a statement, noting that it already sued the DOJ and DEA to clarify the roles and responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act.
In October, a West Virginia court ordered Walmart to disclose internal opioid dispensing documentation supplied to state and federal agencies investigating the retail giant’s alleged role in the opioid epidemic.