Feds Sue Walmart Over Role in Opioid Crisis

December 22, 2020 Updated: December 22, 2020

WASHINGTON—The Justice Department (DOJ) is suing Walmart, alleging the company unlawfully dispensed controlled substances through its pharmacies, helping to fuel the opioid crisis in America.

The civil complaint being filed Tuesday 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. Walmart operates more than 5,000 pharmacies in its stores around the country.

The DOJ 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 DOJ’s civil division.

Federal law required Walmart to spot suspicious orders for controlled substances and report those to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but prosecutors charge the company didn’t do that. Walmart couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“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. “As a result of this inadequate system, 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 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 DOJ’s lawsuit comes nearly two months after Walmart filed its own preemptive suit against the department, Attorney General William Barr, and the DEA.

In its lawsuit, Walmart said the DOJ’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 percent of the doctors still have active registrations with the DEA.

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 the 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 DOJ.

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.

By Michael Balsamo and Anne D’innocenzio