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Department of Justice sues Walmart over opioid crisis

"The Pharmacist": a father's opioid battle
"The Pharmacist": a father's opioid battle 06:57

The Justice Department is suing Walmart, alleging the country's largest retailer unlawfully dispensed controlled substances through its pharmacies and helped fuel the nation's opioid crisis.

In a civil complaint filed Tuesday, the federal government alleges that Walmart pressured its pharmacists to fill opioid prescriptions quickly, denying them the ability to refuse invalid prescriptions. As a result, the complaint alleges, those pharmacists knowingly filled thousands of prescriptions that came from "pill mills," prescriptions for particular drug combinations widely abused, and prescriptions that other Walmart pharmacies had flagged as invalid. The latter meant that "when a Walmart pharmacist recognized that a customer's prescription was invalid, the customer could simply shop around for another Walmart pharmacist or store to fill the same or a similar prescription," the complaint reads. 

The government also charges Walmart with failing to detect and report suspicious prescriptions to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as the law requires it to do.

"Walmart knew that its distribution centers were using an inadequate system for detecting and reporting suspicious orders," Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, said on a call with reporters. "As a result of this inadequate system, for years Walmart reported virtually no suspicious orders at all."

Walmart operates more than 5,000 pharmacies in its stores around the country.

"As a nationwide dispenser and distributor of opioids, and given the sheer number of pharmacies it operates, Walmart was uniquely well positioned to prevent the illegal diversion of opioids. Yet, for years, as the prescription drug abuse epidemic ravaged the country, Walmart abdicated those responsibilities," the complaint says.

Walmart: Bad doctors are to blame

In a statement, Walmart said that the government's suit "is 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 (DEA) 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 statement said. 

"Walmart always empowered our pharmacists to refuse to fill problematic opioids prescriptions, and they refused to fill hundreds of thousands of such prescriptions. Walmart sent DEA tens of thousands of investigative leads, and we blocked thousands of questionable doctors from having their opioid prescriptions filled at our pharmacies," the statement said.

Report finds FDA failure during opioid crisis... 04:37

In October, Walmart filed its own preemptive suit against the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr and the Drug Enforcement Administration. In that lawsuit, Walmart said the Justice Department's investigation — launched in 2016 — had identified hundreds of doctors who wrote problematic prescriptions that Walmart's pharmacists should not have filled. But the Walmart lawsuit charged that nearly 70% of the doctors still have active registrations with the DEA.

Walmart's lawsuit alleged the government was blaming it for the lack of regulatory and enforcement policies to stem the crisis. The company is asking a federal judge to declare the government has no basis to seek civil damages, and its suit remains ongoing.

CBS News' Bridget Brown and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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