WILMINGTON, Del. (CN) — Accusing Walmart of adding fuel to the fire of America’s opioid crisis, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming the retail giant unlawfully dispensed controlled substances at its more than 5,000 pharmacies.
In the 160-page complaint filed in Delaware federal court, the department accuses Walmart of hundreds of thousands of violations of the Controlled Substances Act. The retail corporation failed to properly investigate hundreds of thousands of suspicious prescriptions for controlled substances, the government claims.
“Walmart knowingly violated well established rules requiring it to scrutinize controlled-substance prescriptions to ensure that they were valid—that is, issued by prescribers in a legitimate manner for legitimate purposes, not for purposes of abuse or other diversion. These rules required Walmart to recognize, investigate, and resolve signs of a prescription’s invalidity—’red flags,’ in pharmacy terminology—prior to filling a controlled substance prescription,” the complaint states. “Walmart was well aware of these rules, but made little effort to ensure that it complied with them.”
What’s more, the Justice Department claims Walmart made it difficult for its own pharmacists to follow these rules by putting “enormous pressure” on them to “process a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible.”
At the same time, the company denied them the authority to “categorically refuse to fill prescriptions issued by prescribers the pharmacists knew were continually issuing invalid prescriptions,” the complaint continues, alleging that, as a result, Walmart regularly filled prescriptions written by doctors who had been cut off at other pharmacies for acting as “pill mills.”
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil division, said in a statement that it has long been a priority of the Trump administration to hold those responsible for the opioid crisis accountable and that the suit against Walmart is a step in the right direction.
“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,” Clark said Tuesday. “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.”
In a statement released Tuesday in response to the suit, Walmart said that “the Justice Department’s investigation is tainted by historical ethics violations,” and that the lawsuit “invents a legal theory that unlawfully forces pharmacists to come between patients and their doctors.”
“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,” the company said, making an argument reminiscent of a suit it filed preemptively in October against the Justice Department in a Texas federal court. That suit sought a declaration that the Controlled Substances Act does not require pharmacists to “second-guess” a licensed doctor’s prescription.
Federal prosecutors also alleged Tuesday that Walmart violated its legal obligation to put an effective system in place to detect “suspicious orders” of controlled substances and subsequently report them to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Walmart knew that this rule was designed to prevent diversion of controlled substances and that it would face civil penalties and other potential enforcement if it failed to comply. And compliance could have been readily accomplished, as Walmart had not only adequate resources but also a wealth of information about its pharmacies,” the complaint states. “But for years, Walmart kept in place a system that it knew was failing to adequately detect and report suspicious orders.”
The DEA’s acting administrator, Timothy Shea, rapped Walmart for the alleged lack of oversight Tuesday.
“We entrust distributors and dispensers with the responsibility to ensure controlled substances do not fall into the wrong hands,” 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.”
If the company is found liable for violating the Controlled Substances Act, it could face fines of up to $67,627 for each unlawful prescription filled and $15,691 for each bad prescription not reported.
Representatives for the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to request for comment Thursday, nor did a Walmart spokesperson.
In its October lawsuit, Walmart claimed it was suing under threat of being sued itself by the Trump administration for not following federal prosecutors’ “unwritten expectations” for handling opioid prescriptions.
In the time since the Justice Department launched its investigation into Walmart’s prescription filling in 2016, the opioid epidemic has only worsened—particularly in light of Covid-19.
According to recent provisional data released in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States from May 2019 through May 2020. The public health agency said in the report that this is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period and that the data suggests an “acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.”
“The disruption to daily life due to the Covid-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement included with the report. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”