The U.S. government’s talk of blaming pharmacy chains for the opioid crisis is getting a louder voice.
The Justice Department sued Walmart, the largest U.S. company in terms of revenue, on Tuesday for fueling the national opioid crisis by allowing and encouraging its 5,000-plus pharmacies to fill millions of prescriptions, many of which were suspicious, for the addictive, powerful painkillers.
In a 160-page civil complaint, Walmart is accused of filling invalid subscriptions and carrying on with a system that it knew did not screen questionable prescriptions well. It cites Walmart employees’ warnings to managers and federal authorities during the opioid crisis’ peak.
“As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale drug distributors in the country, Walmart had the responsibility and the means to help prevent the diversion of prescription opioids,” Justice Department Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark said in a statement. “Instead, for years, it did the opposite—filling thousands of invalid prescriptions at its pharmacies and failing to report suspicious orders of opioids and other drugs placed by those pharmacies.”
This follows a May federal lawsuit in which two Ohio counties accused CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid of similar issues of pharmacies filling questionable prescriptions with a perception of safety.
This lawsuit goes after a retail giant, which caused its shares to slide on Tuesday, for increasing profits by poorly staffing pharmacies and causing undue pressure on pharmacists to quickly complete prescriptions, however questionable. Walmart contends it rejected hundreds of thousands of prescriptions.
Walmart filed a pre-emptive suit against the Justice Department in October and said on Tuesday that 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.
“Blaming pharmacists for not second-guessing the very doctors approved to prescribe opioids is a transparent attempt to shift blame from DEA’s (Drug Enforcement Administration’s) well-documented failures in keeping bad doctors from prescribing opioids in the first place,” the lawsuit said.
A similar case against Purdue Pharma led to an $8 billion settlement and the company’s shutdown, but Walmart figures to have more wherewithal than that.