AP

Feds sue Walmart over role in opioid crisis

Dec 23, 2020, 5:48 AM
People shop at a Walmart Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in El Paso, Texas. The Justice Department is suing...
People shop at a Walmart Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in El Paso, Texas. The Justice Department is suing Walmart, alleging the company unlawfully dispensed controlled substances through its pharmacies, helping to fuel the opioid crisis in America, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. The civil complaint being filed Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020 points to the role Walmart’s pharmacies may have played in the crisis by filling opioid prescriptions and by unlawfully distributing controlled substances to the pharmacies during the height of the opioid crisis, the person said. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
(AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department sued Walmart on Tuesday, accusing it of fueling the nation’s opioid crisis by pressuring its pharmacies to fill even potentially suspicious prescriptions for the powerful painkillers.

The civil complaint filed points to the role Walmart’s pharmacies may have played in the crisis by filling opioid prescriptions and Walmart’s own responsibility for the allegedly illegal distribution of controlled substances to the pharmacies at the height of the opioid crisis. Walmart operates more than 5,000 pharmacies in its stores around the country.

The Justice Department alleges Walmart violated federal law by selling thousands of prescriptions for controlled substances that its pharmacists “knew were invalid,” said Jeffrey Clark, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil division.

Federal law required Walmart to spot suspicious orders for controlled substances and report those to the Drug Enforcement Administration, but prosecutors charge the company didn’t do that.

“Walmart knew that its distribution centers were using an inadequate system for detecting and reporting suspicious orders,” said Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney in Colorado. “For years, Walmart reported virtually no suspicious orders at all. In other words, Walmart’s pharmacies ordered opioids in a way that went essentially unmonitored and unregulated.”

The 160-page suit alleges that Walmart made it difficult for its pharmacists to follow the rules, putting “enormous pressure” on them to fill 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 invalid prescriptions.

The suit highlighted alleged problems in Walmart’s compliance department, which oversaw the dispensing nationwide of controlled substance prescriptions. In particular, even after Walmart pharmacists informed the compliance unit about “pill-mill” prescribers whose practices raised egregious red flags, Walmart allegedly continued to fill invalid prescriptions issued by those prescribers, according to the suit. The suit said that only later did Walmart allow pharmacists to do blanket refusals for these suspect practices.

Walmart fought back in an emailed statement to The Associated Press, saying that the Justice Department’s investigation is “tainted by historical ethics violations.” It said 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.”

Walmart noted it always empowered its pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioids prescriptions, and said they refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions. Walmart also noted it sent the Drug Enforcement Administration tens of thousands of investigative leads, and it blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at its pharmacies.

In a corporate blog post published late Tuesday, Walmart argued that many health regulators, medical groups, doctors and patients criticize the company for going too far in refusing to fill opioid prescriptions. Some even say Walmart is improperly interfering in the doctor-patient relationship, the company said.

AP reported the news of the lawsuit ahead of the Justice Department’s public announcement, citing a person who could not discuss the matter publicly before the announced move. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Walmart filed its own preemptive suit against the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr and the Drug Enforcement Administration nearly two months ago.

In its lawsuit, Walmart said the Justice Department’s investigation — launched in 2016 — had identified hundreds of doctors who wrote problematic prescriptions that Walmart’s pharmacists should not have filled. But the lawsuit charged that nearly 70% of the doctors still have active registrations with the DEA.

“Blaming pharmacists for not second-guessing the very doctors the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 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,” the company said in its statement.

Walmart’s lawsuit alleged the government was blaming it for the lack of regulatory and enforcement policies to stem the crisis. The company is asking a federal judge to declare that the government’s suit has no basis to seek civil damages. That suit remains ongoing.

The initial investigation was the subject of a ProPublica story published in March. ProPublica reported that Joe Brown, then U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas office, spent years pursuing a criminal case against Walmart for its opioid prescription practices, only to have it stymied after the retail giant’s lawyers appealed to senior officials in the Justice Department.

Two months later, Brown resigned. He didn’t give a reason for his departure except to say he would be “pursuing opportunities in the private and public sectors.” Brown went into private practice in the Dallas area.

___

D’Innocenzio reported from New York.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

AP

Microsoft is cutting 10,000 workers, almost 5% of its workforce, in response to "macroeconomic cond...
MATT O'BRIEN, Associated Press

Job cuts in tech sector spread, Microsoft lays off 10,000

Microsoft said in a regulatory filing Wednesday that had just notified employees of the layoffs, some of which begin immediately.
14 days ago
exxon mobil sign pictured...
SETH BORENSTEIN and CATHY BUSSEWITZ Associated Press

Study: Exxon Mobil accurately predicted warming since 1970s

Exxon said its understanding of climate change evolved over the years and that critics are misunderstanding its earlier research.
20 days ago
FILE - Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, stand on the roof of the...
The Associated Press

Brazil and Jan. 6 in US: Parallel attacks, but not identical

RIO DE JANIERO, Brazil — Enraged protesters broke into government buildings that are the very symbol of their country’s democracy. Driven by conspiracy theories about their candidate’s loss in the last election, they smashed windows, sifted through the desks of lawmakers and trashed the highest offices in the land in a rampage that lasted hours […]
22 days ago
President Joe Biden pictured...
ZEKE MILLER AP White House Correspondent

DOJ reviewing potentially classified docs at Biden center

Special counsel to the president Richard Sauber said “a small number of documents with classified markings” were discovered at the offices of the Penn Biden Center.
23 days ago
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06: A poster advertising the launch of Prince Harry's memoir "Spare" is s...
Jill Lawless Associated Press

Prince Harry says explosive book is a bid to ‘own my story’

Prince Harry defended his decision to publish a memoir that lays bare rifts inside Britain’s royal family.
23 days ago
utah capitol, a new bill heading to lawmakers will affect the utah sex offender registry...
HANNAH SCHOENBAUM Associated Press/Report for America

States target transgender health care in first bills of 2023

After a record flow of anti-transgender legislation last year, Republican state lawmakers this year are zeroing in on questions of bodily autonomy.
25 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...
Macey's

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Feds sue Walmart over role in opioid crisis