The stain of the nation’s opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis has spread now to Bentonville, Ark., as federal prosecutors have sued Walmart, accusing the nation’s largest retailer of improperly allowing its pharmacists to fill millions of suspicious prescriptions for potent painkillers.
The pharmacists themselves complained to their corporate bosses that they were delivering opioids in far too great quantities to too few customers in out-of-the-way places, prosecutors contend. The warnings were ignored.
Instead, Walmart operated too lax a system both to monitor its outlets’ dispensing of drugs and to provide legally required warning information to federal watchdogs about potentially problematic sales, the New York Times reported, quoting Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil division:
“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. 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.”
The newspaper also reported of the Walmart action:
“The lawsuit is a significant escalation in the government’s effort to hold major pharmacy chains responsible for their role in the opioid crisis. While much of the litigation around opioid addiction has focused on doctors and distributors, a lawsuit filed in federal court in May by two Ohio counties accused CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid of also fueling the problem. The retailers were accused of selling millions of pills in tiny communities, rewarding pharmacists with the highest volumes and promoting opioids as safe and effective.”
Retailers have argued that doctors, not pharmacists, should bear the burden of scrutinizing patients and their prescriptions, otherwise filling orders for powerful medications can be opened to second-guessing of MDs and having drug stores caught between “a rock and a hard place,” as Walmart contends.
The company had sued the government before it got sued, asking courts to decided in advance that Walmart had fulfilled its legal obligations, including providing information that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration might have used well in the battle against opioids.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them due to dangerous drugs, notably opioids and their tragic, potential courses of debilitation, addiction, and death. It took a while for the current painkiller crisis to develop and erupt, with Big Pharma, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and a host of others in health care boosting the menace of opioids and the synthetic cousins like fentanyl that pack an even greater wallop. Opioids acted as a gateway to abuse and overdoses of illicit drugs.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in the opioid and overdose epidemic recent times, experts say, and the coronavirus pandemic has only renewed and worsened the nation’s nightmare in this area.
The incoming Biden Administration not only will be forced to take fast and decisive action to attack the opioid crisis but also to determine the federal strategy to try to hold to account the array of parties that may have helped to fuel the current mess. More than 2,000 state, county, and local governments, as well as Indian tribes have sued drug makers and others accused of fostering the opioid crisis, with these cases consolidated for consideration — and a possible “global” solution — in a federal court in Cleveland. This has been a slow, painful process that also has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The retailer issue is complicated, but as the Washington Post reported:
“Walmart ordered 5.5 billion oxycodone or hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2012, making it the nation’s third-largest buyer of those pills, behind Walgreens and CVS, according to an analysis of DEA data by The Post. Walmart operates 11,500 stores worldwide, including 5,300 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the United States. It is the nation’s largest private employer, with roughly 1.5 million workers.”
We’ve got a lot of work to do in the days ahead to sort out accountability for the opioid and overdose crisis, so justice is served, important oversight reforms occur, and financial deterrents may be imposed — especially so the people harmed may receive addiction and other services they need.