SHERMAN, Texas (CN) — Walmart preemptively sued the federal government Thursday, claiming its pharmacists are being forced by federal guidance to not fulfill valid opioid prescriptions and risk lawsuits for interfering with doctor-patient relationships.
The retail giant sued the Justice Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in federal court, seeking a declaration that the Controlled Substances Act does not require pharmacists to “second-guess” a licensed doctor’s prescription.
Walmart claims it is suing under threat of being sued itself by the Trump administration in civil court for not following federal prosecutors’ “unwritten expectations” for handling opioid prescriptions.
It says the expectations contradict state pharmacy and medical practice laws and forces Walmart pharmacists to risk rejecting a prescription without the benefit of a medical license or examining the patient.
“On the one hand, a pharmacist who fills the facially valid opioid prescription risks federal investigation, civil liability, or even criminal prosecution should DOJ and DEA claim in hindsight that a prescription that pharmacist believed was valid should not have been filed,” the 54-page complaint states. “On the other hand, a pharmacist who refuses to fill such a prescription risks having her license stripped for the unauthorized practice of medicine, not to mention potential harm to patients in need of their medicine.”
Walmart says the company and its pharmacists have already faced state investigations and lawsuits for rejecting “hundreds of thousands of problematic opioid prescriptions” and blocking thousands of “concerning” physicians prescribing opioids.
“And DOJ now has stated it will sue Walmart for not going far enough by continuing to fill opioid prescriptions of certain licensed doctors – many of whom are still authorized by DEA to prescribe opioids to this day,” the complaint states. “DOJ’s legal contentions about the duties of pharmacists and pharmacies cannot be found anywhere in the text of the CSA or in any DEA regulation.”
DEA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment Thursday evening.
Walmart accuses the Justice Department of forcing the company and its pharmacists “between a rock and a hard place.”
“We are bringing this lawsuit because there is no federal law requiring pharmacists to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship to the degree DOJ is demanding, and in fact expert federal and state health agencies routinely say it is not allowed and potentially harmful to patients with legitimate medical needs,” Walmart said in a statement Thursday evening. “We need a court to clarify the roles and legal responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacies in filling opioid prescriptions,”
Walmart’s lawsuit comes two days after a West Virginia state court ordered the company to hand over information about federal and state investigations into its opioid practices to a group of hospitals suing over the company’s role in the opioid crisis.
The discovery commissioner in that case — former Kanawha County Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes — reportedly wrote that Walmart has told at least one other court that the Justice Department’s investigation resulted in no criminal indictment.
“Walmart’s inconsistent representations to this court and others concerning the status of the DOJ’s criminal investigation into it is concerning, to say the least,” Wilkes’ opinion reportedly stated.
The opioid crisis continues to ravage the United States as annual deaths topped 50,000 for the first time in 2019, according to provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It accounted for the majority of the 71,000 fatal drug overdoses for the year. Individual states that are reporting opioid overdoses so far in 2020 indicated there are more drug-related deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Associated Press.
Purdue Pharma, the bankrupt maker of the popular prescription opioid OxyContin. pleaded guilty Wednesday to three federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. The company admitted to marketing the drug for ten years to dodgy doctors while falsely claiming an effective anti-diversion program. No members of the Sackler family — the owners of privately-held Purdue — face criminal charges.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.