Walmart has sued the US government in an attempt to pre-empt a possible Department of Justice lawsuit, arguing federal authorities are putting its pharmacists in an impossible position over how to handle opioid prescriptions.
The country’s biggest retailer, which operates more than 5,000 in-store pharmacies in the US, accused officials of being more focused on “chasing headlines than fixing the crisis” over the drugs.
The lawsuit, filed in Texas on Thursday, said the DoJ was intending to sue Walmart for filling opioid prescriptions from hundreds of doctors that the US government had identified as being “problematic”.
Doctor prescriptions have been blamed for fuelling the epidemic, from which hundreds of thousands of Americans are estimated to have died.
In the suit, Walmart said the justice department and the Drug Enforcement Administration were putting its pharmacists in an untenable position, arguing that it faced action from US states for refusing to fill opioid prescriptions from licensed doctors and now action from the federal government for filling too many.
“On the one hand, a pharmacist . . . risks federal investigation, civil liability or even criminal prosecution should DoJ and DEA claim in hindsight that a prescription the pharmacist believed was valid should not have been filled,” the lawsuit said.
“On the other hand, a pharmacist who refuses to fill such a prescription risks having her license stripped for the unauthorised practice of medicine, not to mention the potential harm to patients in need of their medicine,” it added.
The lawsuit names William Barr, the US attorney-general, and Timothy Shea, the acting administrator of the DEA, as defendants. The justice department and DEA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Walmart has sought declaratory relief to prevent the justice department’s civil action, including by finding that the retailer was not liable for “monetary penalties for failure to report suspicious orders to DEA during the time Walmart self-distributed” opioids.
The company argued that almost 70 per cent of the doctors identified by the government as having written supposedly “problematic” prescriptions in fact continued to have active registrations with the DEA.
“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 alleged.
The justice department had previously investigated Walmart criminally over its filling of opioid prescriptions but ultimately dropped the criminal part of the case in 2018.