U.S. sues Walmart over opioid crisis

Dec. 23, 2020

The U.S. Justice Department has sued Walmart, accusing the retail giant of fueling the national opioid crisis by filling thousands of invalid prescriptions at its pharmacies and failing to report suspicious orders of opioids.

In a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Delaware, the government said Walmart failed to take its gatekeeping duties as a pharmacy and distributor seriously. According to the 160-page complaint, "Walmart made it difficult for its pharmacists to follow the rules. Walmart managers put enormous pressure on pharmacists to fill prescriptions—requiring pharmacists to process a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible, while at the same time denying them the authority to categorically refuse to fill prescriptions issued by prescribers the pharmacists knew were continually issuing invalid prescriptions."

Walmart disagrees.

In a posted statement, Walmart said the investigation is "riddled with factual inaccuracies and cherry-picked documents taken out of context." According to Walmart, the retailer's pharmacists sent the Drug Enforcement Administration "tens of thousands of investigative leads, and we blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at our pharmacies."

In fact, this past October, Walmart sued the DOJ and the DEA, asking a federal court to clarify the roles and responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

“In other words, defendants want to blame Walmart for continuing to fill purportedly bad prescriptions written by doctors that DEA and state regulators enabled to write those prescriptions in the first place and continue to stand by today,” the retailer said in its suit.

The latest DOJ lawsuit comes on the heels of Purdue Pharma pleading guilty to criminal charges over the handling of its OxyContin. During a court hearing conducted remotely before a U.S. District Judge in New Jersey, Purdue pleaded guilty to three felonies covering widespread misconduct related to the prescription painkiller. The criminal violations included conspiring to defraud U.S. officials and pay illegal kickbacks to both doctors and an electronic healthcare records vendor. 

The government suit accuses Walmart of violating the Controlled Substances Act. If found liable, Walmart could face civil penalties of up to $67,627 for each unlawful prescription filled and $15,691 for each suspicious order not reported.

Read the Reuters coverage