DOJ Accuses Walmart of Perpetuating the Opioid Crisis by Looking the Other Way

Illustration for article titled DOJ Accuses Walmart of Perpetuating the Opioid Crisis by Looking the Other Way

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds (Getty Images)

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the Department of Justice accused Walmart of being a reckless drug peddler who put profits over the nation’s health and said the retail giant was a key player in the opioid crisis that resulted in 50,000 overdoses in 2019 alone.

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According to the complaint, Walmart failed to follow the regulatory guidelines established in the Controlled Substances Act that require pharmacies to screen questionable prescriptions and ensure medications are being issued for legitimate medical purposes.

In a statement, the DOJ summarized the charges:

As the operator of its pharmacies, Walmart knowingly filled thousands of controlled substance prescriptions that were not issued for legitimate medical purposes or in the usual course of medical practice, and that it filled prescriptions outside the ordinary course of pharmacy practice. The complaint also alleges that, as the operator of its distribution centers, which ceased distributing controlled substances in 2018, 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.

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U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina Robert Higdon Jr. cited one case in which his office prosecuted a physician who is now serving a 21-year sentence for illegally writing opioid prescriptions. “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,” Higdon said. According to the complaint, this alleged negligence was pervasive across the retailer’s 5,000 U.S. stores and stemmed from leadership’s directives as well as a failure to properly staff pharmacies to handle the necessary work.

The suit alleges that pharmacists complained to Walmart’s compliance department about not having the time to fully vet incoming prescriptions as store managers insisted that the task of filling orders was a “battle of seconds.” In some cases, when one Walmart refused an illegitimate prescription, another would allegedly fill it. Quoting a director in Walmart’s compliance unit, the complaint states that instead of reviewing refusal-to-fill reports as intended, the unit viewed “driving sales and patient awareness” as “a far better use” of the market director’s and market manager’s time.

The DOJ maintains that Walmart violated the Controlled Substances Act “hundreds of thousands” of times and the company could face fines of “$67,627 for each unlawful prescription filled and $15,691 for each suspicious order not reported.”

In response to a request for comment, a Walmart spokesperson directed Gizmodo to a statement that reads, in part:

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.

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Walmart says it will fight the lawsuit and pointed out that it already sued the DOJ in October in an effort to preempt today’s legal action.

So, who are you going to believe, America? Walmart or Attorney General Bill Barr?

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The full suit is embedded below, and Walmart is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

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