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U.S. Sues Walmart, Alleging Role in Fueling Opioid Crisis

The Justice Department takes aim at the drug distribution practices of the U.S.’s largest retailer.
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“The Trump administration sued Walmart Inc. Tuesday, accusing the retail giant of helping to fuel the nation’s opioid crisis by inadequately screening for questionable prescriptions despite repeated warnings from its own pharmacists,” WSJ writes.

The Details: The DoJ’s legal filings claim Walmart tried to keep its pharmacies purposefully understaffed to boost profits, which pressured employees to fill prescriptions hastily. The result was pharmacists overlooking invalid prescriptions, further perpetuating widespread drug use.

Walmart issued a fiery response Tuesday, stating 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.”

  • The company caught wind of the potential suit earlier this year and preemptively sued the federal government to counter the allegations, claiming Walmart is a scapegoat for DoJ and DEA shortcomings on regulating the opioid crisis.

More specifically, the DoJ’s lawsuit places blame on Walmart for turning its 5,000 in-store pharmacies into a leading supplier of painkillers dating back to June 2013.

  • Tampa, Fla. U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez, a prosecutor on the case, says, “Many of these prescription drugs would never have hit the streets if Walmart pharmacies had complied with their obligations.”

This isn’t the first time Walmart has gotten into trouble on this subject. In 2018, the DoJ launched a similar investigation out of Texas, but ultimately decided against bringing charges and focusing on a civil lawsuit.

  • The DoJ also took on Purdue Pharma, which pleaded guilty to three federal felonies on the marketing and distribution of its painkiller OxyContin. The company also paid an $8.34 billion settlement.

The Bottom Line: It’s getting worse. The U.S. saw 50,000 fatal opioid overdoses last year, according to federal data. The CDC recently cited “cited mounting evidence that the crisis is worsening during the pandemic, which has complicated treatment while increasing isolation and stress.”

Justin Oh:

From an ethical standpoint, I have been worried about the opioid crisis and its horrifying effects in the U.S. for years. Action should be brought to the wrongdoing perpetrated up and down the supply chain, especially if businesses like Walmart were willfully ignoring warnings from pharmacists. 

This crisis has been caused by an overprescription of highly-addictive (and government approved) painkillers by physicians, who were reassured by pharmaceutical companies in the late 1990’s that they were not addictive. 

In order to truly fix issues, we need to address their root causes. In this case, one should question what perverse incentives caused opioids to be marketed as “non-addictive” by pharmaceutical companies, approved for such widespread use by the FDA, and prescribed so freely by providers?

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