The Justice Department sued the retail giant Walmart on Tuesday, accusing it of fueling the country's opioid crisis by inadequately screening thousands of dubious prescriptions and ignoring repeated warnings from its own pharmacists.
Walmart "knowingly violated well established rules requiring it to scrutinize controlled-substance prescriptions to ensure that they were valid" and required "pharmacists to process a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible," the suit alleges.
By doing so, "Walmart profited by providing its pharmacies with unusually large quantities of controlled substances to sell, and from selling other products to customers who came to Walmart stores only because Walmart pharmacies would readily provide these controlled substances," according to the federal complaint.
The retailer's own compliance unit "collected voluminous information indicating that Walmart was routinely being asked to fill invalid controlled-substance prescriptions," but "that unit for years withheld that information from pharmacists and allowed them to continue dispensing opioids based on invalid prescriptions," the suit says.
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, the acting assistant attorney general of the civil division of the Justice Department, said on a call with reporters: "Walmart's pharmacies violated the law by filling thousands of prescriptions for controlled substances that Walmart's pharmacists knew were invalid.
"Walmart filled invalid controlled substance prescriptions by the thousands, even when it knew the prescriptions were invalid. And as a wholesale distributor for its own pharmacies, Walmart systematically violated its legal obligation to detect suspicious orders of controlled substances."
Walmart operates more than 5,000 pharmacies nationwide.
The U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, Maria Chapa Lopez, told reporters on the call that "pill mill" doctors were purported to have told patients to fill prescriptions at Walmart that wouldn't be filled elsewhere.
"Many of these prescription drugs would never have hit the streets if Walmart's pharmacies had complied with their obligations," she said.
Walmart said that the company has "always empowered our pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioids prescriptions" and that it has refused to fill "hundreds of thousands" of suspicious prescriptions.
It said in an email that it had sent "tens of thousands of investigative leads" to the Drug Enforcement Administration about suspicious doctors and that it has "blocked thousands of questionable doctors" from filling their prescriptions through Walmart pharmacies.
"By demanding pharmacists and pharmacies second-guess doctors, the Justice Department is putting pharmacists and pharmacies between a rock and a hard place with state health regulators who say they are already going too far in refusing to fill opioid prescriptions," the company said.
Deaths due to synthetic opioid overdoses totaled more than 81,000 from May 2019 to this May, which is the highest number of drug overdoses in a 12-month period ever recorded, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.
Over the last several years, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid have faced several lawsuits across the country similarly alleging that they "aggressively sought to bolster their revenue, increase profit, and grow their share of the prescription painkiller market by unlawfully and surreptitiously increasing the volume of opioids they sold," according to a complaint filed this year in a Ohio federal court.
A separate suit filed this year in West Virginia alleges that "Walmart knew, or should have known that opioids were being oversupplied into the state and should have detected, reported, and rejected suspicious orders." But, the complaint adds, "upon information and belief, it did not."
"Pharmacies are the last line of defense against prescription opioid diversion," Daniel Feith, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Consumer Protection Branch, said last week at the Food and Drug Law Institute's annual enforcement conference, held online. "But too many pharmacies too long abdicated that responsibility."
Pharmacies are but one link in the drug distribution chain. The pharmaceutical manufacturing giant Purdue Pharmacy has been accused by the Justice Department and dozens of state and local governments in separate lawsuits. One, by Utah, accused Purdue of "deceptive and unfair marketing" by "representing opioids as useful in treating chronic pain long-term, and as having low addiction risk."
"Prescription opioids are no less addictive than heroin. No other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition kills patients so frequently," the suit said. The drugmaker declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy to settle the thousands of suits, agreeing to plead guilty in federal court in New Jersey to fraud and conspiracy, which included a criminal fine of $3.544 billion and an additional $2 billion in criminal forfeiture. It also agreed to pay $2.8 billion in civil fines. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, agreed to $225 million in civil damages.
Walmart argued in a lawsuit filed in October against the Justice Department and the DEA that the prescriptions were "written by doctors that DEA and state regulators enabled to write those prescriptions in the first place." The company is requesting a federal declaration that the suit has no basis to seek civil damages. The lawsuit continues.
The Justice Department is seeking civil penalties that could run into the billions of dollars.