The US Justice Department has sued Walmart, accusing the retailer of fuelling the opioid crisis in the United States, ignoring warning signs from its pharmacists and filling thousands of invalid prescriptions.
In a civil lawsuit filed in US District Court in Delaware, the department accused Walmart of failing to take its gatekeeping duties as a pharmacy seriously.
Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, created a system that turned its 5000 in-store pharmacies into a supplier of highly addictive painkillers, dating as early as June 2013, the lawsuit said.
Walmart, whose shares were trading down 1.5 per cent following the news, rejected the allegations, saying 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”.
The retailer called the lawsuit a “transparent attempt to shift blame from the “(Drug Enforcement Administration) well-documented failures in keeping bad doctors from prescribing opioids in the first place”.
The lawsuit marked one of the most significant actions the Justice Department has taken in response to the epidemic targeting companies accused of contributing to it.
Last month, prosecutors secured a guilty plea from Purdue related to its sales of opioids and it previously prosecuted multiple executives at the opioid maker Insys Therapeutics accused of bribing doctors to prescribe an addictive drug.
Insys filed for bankruptcy last year after striking a deal with the government in which a subsidiary pleaded guilty to fraud charges.
Walmart’s “unlawful” actions helped “fuel a national crisis” and had “disastrous consequences”, said Jeffrey Bossert Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division at a press briefing.
Asked if the government was planning on bringing criminal charges, Clark said “you should not draw any inferences about any criminal matters” from the civil filing.
The opioid epidemic has claimed the lives of roughly 450,000 people across the United States since 1999 due to overdoses from prescription painkillers and illegal drugs.
According to the lawsuit, Walmart “unlawfully filled thousands upon thousands of invalid controlled-substance prescriptions”.
The lawsuit said that “for years, Walmart kept in place a system that it knew was failing to adequately detect and report suspicious orders”.
It accused Walmart of violating the Controlled Substances Act. If found liable, it could face civil penalties of up to $US67,627 ($A89,500) for each unlawful prescription filled and $US15,691 ($A20,800) for each suspicious order not reported.