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Walmart Aims to Hold off Opioid Liabilities by Suing the Government

In a bold move to stave off potential financial liability associated with the filling of opioid prescriptions, Walmart has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Foundational to the lawsuit is Walmart's accusation that the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were not providing adequate oversight and enforcement in the face of widespread national opioid abuse. Walmart's potential liability comes from the more than 5,000 pharmacies which it operates within its stores. The company stated its concerns as "...Walmart and its pharmacists may be held liable, perhaps even criminally, for failing to second-guess DEA-registered doctors by refusing their prescriptions. But, if pharmacists do so, they may face the wrath of state medical boards, the medical community at large, individual doctors, and patients," according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.

Walmart's argument centers around the fact that the DEA, in the face of the opioid abuse, continued 70% of suspect physicians’ registrations. In 2018, 60 Minutes reported that in that year alone, there were nearly 47,000 opioid related deaths. A variety of pharmacy chains have argued in federal court that doctors and health care professionals who write the prescriptions are ultimately responsible, not the pharmacist who feels an obligation to fill prescriptions. Further complicating the matter is the fact that drug companies called on pharmacists and provided marketing materials promoting the benefits of opioids.

Although Walmart is a big target, Walgreens was the largest provider of opioid prescriptions between 2006-2012 purchasing 13 billion pills, 3 billion more than CVS (it's closest competitor). Walgreens manager of pharmaceutical integrity indicated that there was "runaway growth" of oxycodone sales and that, according to an internal email, in 2013 their pharmacists were filling prescriptions "without limit or review.”

The anticipation is that the government will file a civil lawsuit against Walmart holding them liable for contributing to the opioid crisis by filling large numbers of opioid prescriptions. Business ethics disputes are often settled through civil litigation. Walmart is seeking to place the blame at the federal and state governments to prevent potentially significant financial loss related to what they perceive as doing their job in filling prescriptions.

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