Walmart pre-emptively sued the DoJ in October, saying it had been put in an impossible position © AFP via Getty Images

The US government is targeting the country’s largest retailer for billions of dollars in damages relating to the epidemic of opioid addiction, saying Walmart unlawfully filled prescriptions for painkillers that it should have known did not have a legitimate medical purpose.

In a civil lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the Department of Justice alleged Walmart committed hundreds of thousands of violations of the Controlled Substances Act. 

Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney-general of the DoJ’s civil division, said Walmart filled invalid prescriptions and failed to report suspicious orders of opioids and other drugs. 

“It has been a priority of this administration to hold accountable those responsible for the prescription opioid crisis. As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale drug distributors in the country, Walmart had the responsibility and the means to help prevent the diversion of prescription opioids,” he said. 

If the retailer is found liable, it could face penalties of up to $67,627 per unlawful prescription that its pharmacy dispensed, and up to $15,691 for each suspicious order that its distributor did not report. 

Shares in Walmart fell 1.5 per cent to $143.81 in afternoon trading in New York.

The charges come after a multiyear investigation by the DoJ. Officials accused Walmart of putting pressure on staff to dispense as many drugs as possible, making it “exceedingly difficult for its pharmacists to comply with their legal obligations”.

$67,627 Potential penalty per unlawful prescription that Walmart’s dispensed

Walmart pharmacists, the lawsuit alleged, complained to the company’s compliance division that the volumes of prescriptions they had to deal with — combined with low staffing levels — made it impossible for them to evaluate each case.

“We are spread too thin,” one employee wrote in an internal survey, according to the lawsuit.

Another wrote: “We don’t have enough staff . . . And that is a huge red flag for possible errors.”

Walmart hit back on Tuesday, arguing the justice department’s case was “riddled with factual inaccuracies and cherry-picked documents taken out of context”.

“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.”

The company said its pharmacists had refused to fill hundreds of thousands of problematic prescriptions.

US federal and state attorneys-general have been pursuing companies for their roles in the opioid epidemic, seeking damages for the cost of a crisis that has led to almost 2m Americans suffering from opioid use disorder and caused more than 100 overdoses a day. States, counties and cities have been left with large bills for healthcare and law enforcement. 

Prosecutors initially focused on high-prescribing doctors and on the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured and marketed the opioids. The DoJ announced an $8.3bn settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful opioid OxyContin, in October. 

But they are now also investigating distributors and pharmacies. Earlier this month, a federal court ordered a pharmacy in North Carolina to pay more than $1m and cease distributing opioids, while the US attorney for the district of Utah accused a pharmacy chain in that state of failing to recognise “red flags” of improper and illegitimate prescriptions. 

Walmart has already taken pre-emptive action in anticipation of the lawsuit, bringing a case of its own in October against the DoJ and the DEA. 

The retailer’s suit said the authorities were putting it in an impossible position. On the one hand, Walmart contended, the company faced claims against it if it failed to dispense drugs to customers who had legitimate prescriptions. On the other, it now faced legal action for dispensing too many. 

The suit, filed in Texas, named William Barr, US attorney-general, and Timothy Shea, the acting administrator of the DEA, as defendants.

Walmart has argued that blame for the crisis lies elsewhere. Many of the doctors who the government said had written “problematic” prescriptions remained registered with the DEA, according to the company.

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