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Justice Department sues Walmart over role in opioid crisis

The complaint points to the role Walmart’s pharmacies may have played in the crisis by filling opioid prescriptions.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2020 file photo, a woman, wearing a protective face mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, wheels a cart with her purchases out of a Walmart store, in Derry, N.H.

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department 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 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 prosecutors also alleges that Walmart also “systematically violated its legal obligation to detect suspicious orders of controlled substances” and report them to the federal government, Clark said.

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“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.”

Clark said Walmart “violated important provisions of the Controlled Substances Act that were meant to prevent such controlled substances, including prescription opioids, from being diverted for misuse and abuse.”

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.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit comes nearly two months after Walmart filed its own preemptive suit against the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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.

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 government has no basis to seek civil damages; the suit remains ongoing.

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Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2020 file photo, a woman, wearing a protective face mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, wheels a cart with her purchases out of a Walmart store, in Derry, N.H.