Walmart filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Thursday (Oct. 22), asking for clarity to pharmacists’ requirements when filling prescriptions containing opioids. The company filed the 54-page complaint in the Eastern District of Texas the Sherman Division.
In 2019, the DEA began to crack down on pharmacists and physicians looking to curb the massive use of the potent drugs and the highly addictive nature of opioids used to manage pain. The complaint claims the government’s recent actions attempt to make up for years of “profound failures” to limit the number of opioid drugs being produced and sold on the market and stop “bad actors” from prescribing them without cause. The suit claims the DEA was given years of reports naming suspicious activity from doctors across the nation who manage to have their licenses still because the regulatory continued to renew them.
Walmart has taken some issue with vagueness in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) concerning pharmacists and pharmacies’ roles and responsibilities when they fill opioid prescriptions.
The retail giant ranks third in the U.S. among the number of pharmacists employed within retail establishments. Walmart employs more than 15,300, less than the 31,200 pharmacists who work for CVS Health and the nearly 49,000 who work at Walgreens.
Walmart said its pharmacists exercise their professional judgment to refuse to fill hundreds of thousands of inappropriate opioid prescriptions and have blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at any Walmart pharmacy. According to the filing, the company also often assists law enforcement in identifying inappropriate prescriptions and prescribers and helps bring doctors who violate justice rules.
Walmart’s suit also claims that the DOJ and DEA’s legal theories are “misguided and not supported by the CSA or its regulations.
Walmart said the company is proud of the difficult work its pharmacies do cross the country every day to serve patients. Walmart said the DOJ is forcing the company’s “pharmacists between a rock and hard place” by saying it will sue the retailer for not doing more to second-guess doctor’s opioid prescriptions, while at the same time state health regulators are threatening Walmart and its pharmacists for going too far in interfering in the doctor-patient relationship. Doctors and patients also bring lawsuits when their opioid prescriptions are not filled, Walmart said in a prepared statement.
“Walmart and the company’s pharmacists are torn between demands from DEA on one side, and health agencies and regulators on the other, and patients are also caught in the middle. The company needs a court to clarify the roles and legal responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacies in filling opioid prescriptions,” Walmart concluded in the statement.
The National Institute of Health reports that 21% to 29% of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including healthcare costs, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.