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Walmart Sued by US Over Alleged Role in Fueling America's Opioid Crisis
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=19204"><span class="small">Victoria Bekiempis, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Thursday, 24 December 2020 13:40

Bekiempis writes: "The US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Walmart on Tuesday, alleging that the retail giant filled 'thousands of invalid prescriptions' for powerful painkillers, helping fuel America's opioid crisis."

A Walmart store entrance in Pittsburgh. (photo: Gene J Puskar/AP)
A Walmart store entrance in Pittsburgh. (photo: Gene J Puskar/AP)

Walmart Sued by US Over Alleged Role in Fueling America's Opioid Crisis

By Victoria Bekiempis, Guardian UK

24 December 20

Retailer accused of filling ‘thousands of invalid prescriptions’ and pressuring pharmacists to act irresponsibly

he US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Walmart on Tuesday, alleging that the retail giant filled “thousands of invalid prescriptions” for powerful painkillers, helping fuel America’s opioid crisis.

Walmart runs more than 5,000 pharmacies across the country. Until 2018, the chain was a wholesale distributor of controlled substances for its own pharmacies, giving it extensive reach into many communities.

The civil complaint 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.

“As a nationwide dispenser and distributor of opioids, and given the sheer number of pharmacies it operates, Walmart was uniquely well positioned to prevent the illegal diversion of opioids,” the 160-page civil suit, filed in Delaware federal court, said.

“Yet, for years, as the prescription drug abuse epidemic ravaged the country, Walmart abdicated those responsibilities,” the suit added.

In response, Walmart said the suit was “riddled with factual inaccuracies”.

The DoJ document said the company “knowingly violated well established rules requiring it to scrutinize controlled-substance prescriptions to ensure that they were valid – that is, issued by prescribers in a legitimate manner for legitimate purposes, not for purposes of abuse or other diversion,” the suit continued. While Walmart was legally required to check potential red flags, it “made little effort to ensure that it complied with them”.

Instead, Walmart made it hard for pharmacists to abide by these regulations. Managers pressured pharmacists to fill high volumes of prescriptions as quickly 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”, the complaint charged.

Even though Walmart’s compliance arm had amassed extensive information showing that people were repeatedly trying to get invalid narcotic prescriptions filled, the unit kept that data from pharmacists, authorities also said.

Walmart filled prescriptions from prescribers who its own pharmacists had “repeatedly reported were acting as egregious ‘pill mills’ – even when Walmart was alerted that other pharmacies were not filling prescriptions for those prescribers. In fact, some of those pill-mill prescribers specifically told their patients to fill their prescriptions at Walmart.”

So intense were the pressures on pharmacists that managers told them to “[h]ustle to the customer, hustle from station to station” because completing prescriptions “is a battle of seconds”, federal authorities alleged.

As early as 2013, Walmart adopted a plan that used the number of prescriptions processed by an employee’s store as a factor in determining if the pharmacy staffer “was entitled to monetary incentive awards”.

The DoJ contends that Walmart has committed “hundreds of thousands of violations” of the Controlled Substances Act. If Walmart is found liable for violating this act, each unlawfully filled prescription could result in a $67,627 penalty. Each suspicious order that was not reported to authorities could result in a penalty of up to $15,691. Civil penalties could reach “billions”, the DoJ said.

More than 232,000 people died in the US from opioid-involved overdoses between 1999 and 2018, according to the DoJ.

In a statement, Walmart said that the DoJ’s investigation was “tainted by historical ethics violations, and this 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”.

“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.

Walmart recently sued the DoJ and DEA, alleging that authorities wrongly ascribed blame to the company. The retailer’s suit wants a federal judge to determine that the government does not have grounds to pursue civil damages, according to the Associated Press. your social media marketing partner