Walmart is Being Sued for its Role in the Opioid Epidemic
Some Walmart pharmacists are saying the company ignored warning signs about the opioid epidemic. Desperate customers lined up before the store even opened waiting to get their hands on bottles of pain pills. One pharmacist is speaking up after seeing what the Drug Enforcement Agency would call red flags. For instance, some patients drove very long distances to get their opioids and did not have any good reasons for having high opioid doses.
The pharmacist tried to notify his bosses in Michigan and Walmart headquarters in Arkansas. When alerting higher ups in the company, he warned that the pharmacies were feeding an opioid black market. He says that the bosses wanted him to not cause any problems and be quiet. They threatened to fire him immediately if he contacted the DEA about what was happening. The opioid epidemic killed 450,000 Americans between 1999 and 2018, and Walmart is being criticized for its role fueling the problem. Walmart is now being sued by the Justice Department and state and local governments for selling billions of pills without having safeguards in place.
Many different prescriptions were given out, including to people with wrongly filled out prescriptions and to people with prescriptions with signatures looking like they were filled out by a computer. He also could not contact doctors to figure out what was happening because the doctors on the prescriptions were not reachable. This is evidence that the prescriptions were not medical but were prescriptions being sold on the street. The Controlled Substances Act ensures doctors write the prescriptions for their patients, but pharmacists also must be diligent and reject suspicious prescriptions. The pharmacist went to the police and the DEA and was fired after sounding the alarm.
Many other pharmacists raised concerns when many patients came from “pill mill” doctors after other pharmacies stopped filling their prescriptions. A lot of patients paid in cash, which is a large red flag.
Walmart is saying regulators are trying to shift blame from problem doctors and government officials to the company. Walmart does recognize that it was warned of red flags, but any alerts given were not legally binding. It also argued that it was the job of the government to crack down on doctors overprescribing opioids. It was also argued that pharmacists had the authority to reject suspicious prescriptions, which happened in the hundreds of thousands, though there were hundreds of millions of opioid prescriptions filled each year. Pharmacists felt pressure to fill the prescriptions quickly and without many questions. Some experts even believe the pharmacists did not have the proper training, time, and information to properly review and reject faulty opioid prescriptions.
Court documents show that Walmart was warned as early as 2009 that it was not managing high risk medications properly to help keep patients safe. Walmart promised reforms in a signed agreement, but this did not change anything and led to a Walmart pharmacy being raided in 2016. Criminal charges were almost brought against the company and most recently a civil suit was filed in December for filling thousands of invalid controlled substance prescriptions. It could potentially pay billions in penalties.
The acting assistant attorney general stated that Walmart had the responsibility and means to prevent the diversions of prescriptions, but instead it filled thousands of invalid prescriptions and never reported suspicious orders. Walmart must defend itself against these claims since the lawsuits against the company are moving forward. The company wanted a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year by two Ohio counties, but the judge rejected the motion saying that Walmart had deficiencies in its opioid safety practices. Perdue Pharma settled with the federal government last year for $8.3 billion for its role in the opioid epidemic.
Walmart is not the only company under fire for its opioid prescription practices. CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens are also under fire and are facing lawsuits for their role in the epidemic.
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