Jesse Eisinger

The Justice Department sues Walmart — accuses it of illegally dispensing opioids

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

More than two years after the federal government was preparing to indict Walmart on charges of illegally dispensing opioids, the U.S. Department of Justice is finally taking action. But it's seeking a financial penalty, not the criminal sanction prosecutors had pushed for.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice brought a civil suit against Walmart in U.S. District Court in Delaware, accusing the retailing behemoth of illegally dispensing and distributing opioids, helping to fuel a health crisis that has led to the deaths of around half a million Americans since 1999.

The government accuses the company, which operates one of the biggest pharmacy chains in the country, of knowingly filling thousands of invalid opioid prescriptions, failing to alert the government to dangerous or excessive prescriptions, and pushing pharmacists to work faster and look the other way in order to boost corporate profits.

By law, pharmacists are prohibited from filling prescriptions they know are not for legitimate medical needs. “Walmart was well aware of these rules, but made little effort to ensure that it complied with them," the government said in its suit.

Walmart applied “enormous pressure" on pharmacists to fill prescriptions as fast as they could, while preventing them from halting prescriptions they knew came from bad doctors, the government said. When Walmart pharmacists warned headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, about doctors who operated “known pill mills," did “not practice real medicine" and had “horrendous prescribing practices," headquarters ignored their pleas, the lawsuit asserts.

Walmart denounced the suit. “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 and cherry-picked documents taken out of context," the company said in a statement. In October, aware that a government suit was likely, Walmart took the highly unusual step of preemptively suing the Justice Department. The company argued that it did nothing wrong and, there, too, accused the government of acting unethically. According to Walmart, the federal prosecutors used the threat of a criminal case to try to negotiate higher civil penalties. (Prosecutors deny that claim.)

The case against Walmart originated in the summer of 2016, with an investigation of two Texas doctors, Howard Diamond and Randall Wade, who were prescribing opioids on a vast scale. Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Texas eventually brought cases against the pair, accusing them of contributing to multiple deaths. The doctors were subsequently convicted of illegal distribution of opioids, with Wade sentenced to 10 years in prison and Diamond to 20 years. That case uncovered evidence that led prosecutors to investigate Walmart itself.

In 2018, Joe Brown, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas, sought to criminally indict the company over its opioid practices, as detailed in a ProPublica story in March. During this period, as Walmart tried to fend off a criminal case, its lawyers expressed willingness to discuss a civil settlement. The company “stands ready to engage in a principled and reasoned dialogue concerning any potential conduct of its employees that merits a civil penalty," Jones Day partner Karen Hewitt wrote in August 2018 to the head of the criminal division of the Justice Department.

The Texas prosecutors were unswayed by Walmart's arguments. Joined by the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Brown's team traveled to Justice Department headquarters in Washington to make an impassioned plea to bring the criminal case.

But Trump appointees at the highest levels of the department — including the deputy attorneys general at different times, Rod Rosenstein and Jeffrey Rosen — stymied the attempt, dictating that Walmart could not be indicted. (Rosen recently was named acting attorney general.) When prosecutors sought to criminally prosecute a Walmart manager, top officials in the Trump Justice Department prevented that, too.

The Justice Department then dragged out civil settlement negotiations. The delays prompted Josh Russ, the head of the civil division in the Eastern District of Texas who had urged bringing a civil suit years ago, to resign in protest. “Corporations cannot poison Americans with impunity. Good sense dictates stern and swift action when Americans die," Russ wrote in his resignation letter in October 2019.

This week's suit largely echoes the allegations that the Eastern District of Texas had made in seeking a criminal case. Legal officials can in some circumstances pursue the same allegations either criminally or civilly, with a higher burden of proof for prosecutors and stiffer potential penalties for defendants when it comes to criminal cases.

In the new suit, prosecutors said Walmart pharmacists routinely filled prescriptions from known “pill mill" doctors. Sometimes those doctors explicitly told their patients to go to Walmart pharmacies, the complaint alleges. Walmart filled prescriptions from doctors even when its pharmacists knew that other pharmacies had stopped filling prescriptions from those doctors.

The suit also details that Walmart's compliance unit based out of its headquarters collected “voluminous" information that its pharmacists were regularly being served invalid prescriptions, but “for years withheld that information" from its pharmacists.

In fact, the compliance department often sent the opposite message. When a regional manager received a list of troubling prescriptions from headquarters, he asked, “Does your team pull out any insights from these we need to highlight?"

In an email cited in the suit, which was first reported by ProPublica, a director of Health and Wellness Practice Compliance at Walmart, responded, “Driving sales and patient awareness is a far better use of our Market Directors and Market manager's time."

Walmart headquarters regularly put pressure on pharmacists to work faster. Managers pushed pharmacists because “shorter wait times keep patients in store," that this was a “battle of seconds" and that “wait times are our Achilles heel!" according to the suit. Pharmacists said the pressure and Walmart's thin staffing “doesn't allow time for individual evaluation of prescriptions," the suit says.

In May, two months after ProPublica published its story, Brown, the U.S. attorney who had pushed for criminal prosecution of Walmart, left his job abruptly. His resignation letter cited the need to “win the fight against opioid abuse in order to save our country" and added that “players both big and small must meet equal justice under the law." Brown did not return a call seeking comment.

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