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Justice Department sues Walmart alleging role in opioid crisis

Dec. 22 (UPI) -- The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Walmart alleging the company unlawfully dispensed controlled substances, fueling the opioid crisis.

The 160-page complaint alleges violations of the Controlled Substances Act and seeks civil penalties that could amount to billions of dollars.

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"As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale 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 on the complaint. "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."

In particular, the suit says that Walmart, which has a network of 5,000 in-store U.S. pharmacies, violated rules requiring it to assess whether controlled-substance prescriptions were valid prior to filling them.

"In fact, Walmart made it difficult for its pharmacists to follow the rules," the complaint said. "Walmart managers put enormous pressure on pharmacists to fill prescriptions -- requiring pharmacists to process a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible, while at the same time denying them the authority to categorically refuse to fill prescriptions issued by prescribers the pharmacists knew were continually issuing invalid prescriptions."

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"As a result of Walmart's failures to take seriously its gatekeeping duties as a pharmacy, Walmart -- during the prescription drug abuse epidemic -- unlawfully filled thousands upon thousands of invalid controlled-substance prescriptions," the complaint added.

The complaint also alleged that the rushed orders led to "more chance of mistakes," and these violations of the CSA dispensing requirements occurred from 2013 to the present.

"The Justice Department's investigation is tainted by historical ethics violations, and this 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," Walmart said in a statement Tuesday in response to the complaint. "Blaming pharmacists for not second-guessing the very doctors the Drug Enforcement Administration approved to prescribe opioids is a transparent attempt to shift blame from DEA's well-documented failures in keeping bad doctors from prescribing opioids in the first place."

Expecting the civil complaint, Walmart preemptively filed a suit against the federal government in October, The Wall Street Journal reported.

At the time, Walmart said that the Justice Department wanted to use it as a scapegoat for its own regulatory and enforcement shortcomings in fighting the opioid crisis.

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In its lawsuit, the retail giant said nearly seven in 10 doctors the federal government flagged still have active registrations with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"In other words, defendants want to blame Walmart for continuing to fill purportedly bad prescriptions written by doctors that DEA and state regulators enabled to write those prescriptions in the first place and continue to stand by today," the lawsuit said.

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