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Walmart hit with $27 million judgment for firing pharmacist who complained about Medicare violations

A federal jury in California awarded $27 million to a former Walmart pharmacist who was fired after complaining that the company broke Medicare laws.

(CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday awarded a former Walmart pharmacist with $27 million in total damages, agreeing that the retail giant wrongfully fired the employee after she complained they were violating Medicare laws.

Former Walmart pharmacist Afrouz Nikmanesh said Walmart failed to report necessary data to the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, otherwise known as the CURES program, a database of controlled substance prescriptions dispensed throughout California, which requires pharmacists to file weekly reports with the California Department of Justice.

She reported these violations to her supervisors sometime between July 2013 and September 2014 and asked that they investigate and correct the various compliance issues. Walmart responded by firing Nikmanesh in September 2014, which she claims was solely in retaliation for her complaining about their non-compliance with state laws.

Walmart committed numerous pharmacy violations and instances of noncompliance with state law, according to the plaintiff, including charging Medicare beneficiaries above the Medi-Cal reimbursement rate for prescriptions and failing to provide eligible patients with a Medicare discount.

“The Jury of 8 unanimously found that Ms. Nikmanesh’s reporting of Walmart’s overcharging Medicare customers over the age of 65 and persons under the age of 65 with disabilities for their medications and not properly reporting the dispensement of controlled substances to the Department of Justice under the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System program was a substantial motivating reason for Walmart’s decision to retaliate against and discharge her,” said Dayton B. Parcells III, lead attorney for the plaintiff.

Judge Jesus G. Bernal with the Central District of California issued the judgment on Wednesday.

The ruling includes $40,000 for economic losses; $100,000 for non-economic losses; $60,000 for future non-economic losses; and $27.3 million in punitive damages.

Representatives for Walmart were not immediately available for comment.

In an underlying class action lawsuit brought by Nikmanesh and three other pharamacists, they claimed they were denied overtime wages along with meal and rest breaks and given inaccurate wage statements that didn’t account for the hours they actually spent working.

They claimed Walmart enacted a policy prohibiting its pharmacists from leaving the pharmacy unattended, saying this made it impossible for them to take their legally mandated meal and rest breaks. Because of a shortage of pharmacists who could cover for them, they said they were effectively forced to work throughout their shifts without pause.

The plaintiffs also claimed Walmart told them to obtain their immunization certifications, which would allow them to provide on-site immunizations to pharmacy patients, but refused to compensate them for the time they spent studying and preparing for the exam. They said that getting the certification increased their workload several times over, but Walmart refused to provide additional staffing to meet the increased demand. The pharmacists ultimately reached a settlement with Walmart on these training course claims.

“In most surveys, pharmacists rank as the 2nd most trusted professionals in America. However, can you really trust an overworked pharmacist that is deprived the opportunity to take a break to recharge before attending to patients’ needs, multiple doctor’s offices, and insurance companies, all while trying to stay within compliance of pharmacy laws and regulations?” asked Nikmanesh in a piece she published in 2015 about the case.

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