The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed suit against retail giant Walmart, alleging its pharmacies "unlawfully" distributed opioids at the height of the addiction crisis.
The complaint, filed Tuesday, follows a yearslong investigation by the DOJ's Prescription Interdiction & Litigation Task Force and alleges Walmart's pharmacies knowingly filled thousands of prescriptions for controlled substances that were not provided for legitimate medical needs.
The suit also claims Walmart pharmacies filled prescriptions "outside of normal pharmacy practice."
In addition, Walmart's distribution centers received hundreds of thousands of "suspicious" orders that it did not appropriately report to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to the lawsuit. Walmart's distribution centers no longer send out controlled substances as of 2018.
If the retailer is found liable for the alleged Controlled Substances Act violations, it could face penalties of up to $67,627 per unlawful prescription and $15,691 for each order not reported to the DEA, the DOJ said.
A total payout could be in the billions of dollars, DOJ said.
"It has been a priority of this administration to hold accountable those responsible for the prescription opioid crisis. 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," said Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the Civil Division, 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 unlawful conduct contributed to the epidemic of opioid abuse throughout the United States. Today’s filing represents an important step in the effort to hold Walmart accountable for such conduct," he said.
In a blog post, Walmart defended itself against the allegations, calling the lawsuit a "misguided" attempt to force pharmacists to step "between patients and their doctors."
The retailer said its pharmacists have refused to fill hundreds of thousands of opioid prescriptions they flagged as "problematic," and the company has blocked thousands of "questionable" docs from having opioid prescriptions filled at its pharmacies. The company added that it has been accused by some health organizations and physicians of interfering too much in the doctor-patient relationship through its opioid policies.
"One serious and big-picture problem with the Department’s attempt to turn pharmacists and pharmacies into DEA’s own 'doctor police' is that it forces them to come between doctors and their patients in a way Congress never intended, and federal and state health regulators say isn’t allowed," Walmart said. "And many patients say that pharmacies are preventing them from getting needed medicine."