DOJ sues Walmart; Congress rips Sacklers

  • Walmart

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday sued Walmart, alleging the retail giant failed to properly screen prescriptions and stressed speed and profits over patients’ well-being at its 5,000 pharmacies.

The DOJ alleges Walmart violated federal law by selling thousands of prescriptions for controlled substances that its pharmacists “knew were invalid,” said Jeffrey Clark, the acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil division.

The 160-page suit filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware alleges Walmart exerted “enormous pressure” on its pharmacists to fill a high volume of prescriptions as fast as possible, while simultaneously denying them authority to categorically refuse to fill questionable prescriptions.

If found liable, Walmart could end up paying billions of dollars in civil penalties: a maximum of $67,000 per unlawful prescription filled and $15,000 for each suspicious prescription it failed to report.

In a response emailed to The Associated Press, Walmart asserted that the Justice Department’s investigation is “tainted by historical ethics violations.” It said the 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 wrote that it always empowered its pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioids prescriptions, and said they refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions.

Walmart also noted it sent the Drug Enforcement Administration tens of thousands of investigative leads, and claimed it blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at its pharmacies.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company is already a target of more than 2,000 suits filed by states, cities and counties which allege the retailer intentionally turned a blind eye to suspicious prescriptions for painkillers and profiting from opioid addictions and overdoses.

Walmart and pharmacy chains such as Rite Aid Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. are facing a trial next year in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, over the allegations. The case had been set for November but was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak.

In a related matter, Purdue Pharma, the maker of the popular painkiller OxyContin, agreed in October to plead guilty to three federal criminal charges for its role in the nation’s opioid crisis and will pay more than $8 billion.

Two owners of Purdue Pharma acknowledged to Congress that OxyContin played a role in the opioid epidemic, but they stopped short of apologizing or admitting wrongdoing. David Sackler served on the Pursue Pharma board of directors from 2012 until 2018. His cousin, Kathe Sackler, served on the board from 1990 until 2018.

“OxyContin is a medicine that Purdue intended to help people, and it has helped, and continues to help, millions of Americans,” David Sackler said.

However, the company’s marketing efforts have been blamed for contributing to an addiction and overdose crisis that has been linked to 470,000 deaths in the United States over the past two decades.

Asked about her role in the opioid epidemic, Kathe Sackler said, “I have tried to figure out if there’s anything I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, not what I know now. There is nothing I can find that I would have done differently.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., noted that OxyContin sales revenue increased even after the company pleaded guilty to crimes for improper marketing of the drug. “You want to ask what you could have done differently?” he said. “Look at your own damn balance sheet.” Court documents show the Sacklers have received more than $12 billion from Purdue since OxyContin was released in 1996.

The two Sacklers, descendants of two of the three brothers who bought Purdue nearly 70 years ago, appeared before the House Oversight Committee in a video hearing and only after the committee’s chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, threatened to issue subpoenas.

The hearing occurred three weeks after Purdue pleaded guilty to three criminal charges as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice.

The privately held company has agreed to pay a $3.5 billion fine as well as forfeit $2 billion in past profits, in addition to the $2.8 billion it agreed to pay in civil liability.

The company doesn’t have $8 billion in cash to pay the fines. So Purdue will be dissolved as part of the settlement, and its assets will be used to create a new company controlled by a trust or similar entity designed for the benefit of the American public. The Justice Department said it will function entirely in the public interest rather than to maximize profits. Its future earnings will go to paying the fines and penalties, which in turn will be used to battle the opioid crisis.

The settlement requires the company to hand over just $225 million of the $8 billion total to the government so long as Purdue makes good on plans to settle thousands of lawsuits filed by state and local governments, a matter now in bankruptcy court.

The deal leaves open the possibility that Sackler family members could be criminally prosecuted. Both Sacklers said that they and others in their family regard addiction as a disease. “I would submit that you and your family are addicted to money,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., compared the Sacklers to drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. “I’m not sure that I’m aware of any family in America that’s more evil than yours,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.