The Justice Department filed suit against Walmart on Tuesday over allegations the big-box retailer helped fuel the opioid crisis via its pharmacies.
According to the suit, Walmart understaffed pharmacies and pressured employees to fill prescriptions as quickly as possible, making it more difficult for pharmacists to reject invalid prescriptions. Beginning around 2013, Walmart began to offer opioid painkillers at low prices while company executives ordered mid-level managers to encourage pharmacists to fill prescriptions quickly, believing that speed would draw returning customers.
Walmart’s compliance unit was criticized by the DOJ for allegedly ignoring warnings that the company’s push to file prescriptions quickly endangered patients’ health.
“Rather than analyzing the refusal-to-fill reports, the compliance unit viewed ‘[d]riving sales and patient awareness’ as ‘a far better use of our Market Directors and Market Manager’s time,’” the DOJ wrote. “Given the nationwide scale of those violations, Walmart’s failures to follow basic legal rules helped fuel a national crisis.”
Walmart preemptively sued the federal government in October while expecting the DOJ’s complaint. The company accuses the DOJ of trying to offload responsibility for the opioid crisis from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“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,” Walmart said in a statement on Tuesday. Moreover, the lawsuit “invents a legal theory that unlawfully forces pharmacists to come between patients and their doctors, and is riddled with factual inaccuracies and cherry-picked documents taken out of context.”
The suit comes several weeks after Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty for its role in manufacturing and distributing Oxycontin.
A number of states and counties have reported evidence that opioid and other drug overdoses have increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Extended business closures, economic stagnation, and reduction in social activity to mitigate coronavirus spread have made treating opioid addiction more difficult.