The Trump administration sued Walmart on Tuesday, accusing the multinational retail organization of helping to incite the US opioid epidemic by inadequately screening for questionable prescriptions despite warnings from its own pharmacists.
According to a civil complaint filed Tuesday, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has alleged that Walmart “unlawfully dispensed controlled substances from pharmacies it operated across the country and unlawfully distributed controlled substances to those pharmacies throughout the height of the prescription opioid crisis.”
The complaint also states that Walmart’s alleged unlawful conduct caused hundreds of thousands of violations of the Controlled Substances Act, which regulates certain drugs.
The DoJ is thus seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties, the latter of which could cost Walmart billions of dollars.
“It has been a priority of this administration to hold accountable those responsible for the prescription opioid crisis. As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale drug distributors in the country, Walmart had the responsibility and the means to help prevent the diversion of prescription opioids,” Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the DoJ's Civil Division, is quoted as saying in the department's release.
“Instead, for years, it did the opposite — filling thousands of invalid prescriptions at its pharmacies and failing to report suspicious orders of opioids and other drugs placed by those pharmacies. This unlawful conduct contributed to the epidemic of opioid abuse throughout the United States. Today’s filing represents an important step in the effort to hold Walmart accountable for such conduct,” Clark added.
The suit also alleges that Walmart tried to boost its profits by understaffing its pharmacies, which forced employees to fill prescriptions faster, the Wall Street Journal reported. As a result, pharmacists were unable to reject invalid prescriptions, which helped fuel widespread drug abuse, the DoJ claims. In addition, the suit alleges that Walmart cut its prices for opioids to increase sales, while middle managers pressured pharmacists to quickly fill prescriptions to keep customers coming back.
In a statement Tuesday, Walmart claimed that 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."
“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,” Walmart said, also noting that it “always empowered our pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioids prescriptions, and they refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions.”
According to the Journal, Walmart had been expecting this complaint and sued the federal government preemptively in October to fight against the allegations. In its suit, Walmart accused both the DoJ and the DEA of trying to scapegoat the retail giant for the government's own regulatory failures.
Data by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that while the number of American drug overdose deaths decreased by 4% from 2017 to 2018, the total was still four times higher in 2018 than in 1999.