Walmart nearly criminally charged over opioid prescriptions, report finds

Federal prosecutors attempted to criminally charge Walmart in 2018 for allegedly violating the Controlled Substances Act, according to an investigation by ProPublica

Prosecutors from Texas investigated opioid dispensing in Walmart for almost two years and said they had "highly damning evidence" against Walmart that opioids dispensed by the company's pharmacists had killed customers who overdosed. 

Walmart has the fifth-highest pharmacy revenue in the country, according to ProPublica

Pharmacists allegedly told the company they didn't want to fill prescriptions because they were coming from physicians running so-called "pill mills." However, they were told by company compliance officials that they could not cut off a physician entirely. One opioid compliance manager said Walmart's focus should be on "driving sales," according to an email viewed by ProPublica

Investigators said they found evidence of similar behavior in Walmart pharmacies across the country and that pharmacists had reported hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate opioid prescriptions. 

Heather Rattan, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, told Walmart she was prepared to indict the company for violating the Controlled Substances Act. Indictments of Fortune 500 companies are unheard of, according to ProPublica

However, before Texas prosecutors could file the case, Walmart allegedly talked to high-ranking officials at the U.S. Justice Department, who then ordered the prosecutors to stop the investigation. On Aug. 31, 2018, Justice Department officials told Walmart the agency wouldn't prosecute the company, ProPublica reported.

After pursuing a criminal case, prosecutors also attempted a civil case, but that too was allegedly blocked by Justice Department officials.

A Walmart spokesperson told ProPublica: "The United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Texas engaged in misconduct multiple times as it investigated Walmart, including threatening to bring meritless criminal charges against Walmart in order to extort an unjustified civil settlement from the company. This behavior was clearly improper, violated the Department of Justice's own internal policies and rules of legal ethics, and was entirely inconsistent with the Department's long-standing policies."

A Walmart spokesperson told Becker's Hospital Review that the investigation "relied on a flawed legal theory that Walmart should have adopted corporate policies that were never required by federal law and would have been contradicted by multiple state laws." 

The spokesperson also said that Walmart has been accused by state and national health regulators, including the American Medical Association, of filing too few opioid prescriptions and of interfering with physicians' rights to prescribe opioids. 

U.S. Attorney Joe Brown said the investigators complied with Justice Department policy and told ProPublica: "Walmart chooses now to attack the investigators, a tried and true method to avoid oversight. We are confident that once all of the facts in this matter are public, the hollowness of this criticism will be apparent. It is not the goal of our office to embarrass Walmart. Walmart's behavior in dispensing opioid medication in the middle of a public health crisis should embarrass Walmart."

Read ProPublica's full investigation here.

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