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Justice Department Says Walmart Helped To Fuel Ongoing Opioid Crisis

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Justice Department is taking on one of the world's biggest companies - Walmart. A civil suit alleges that the retail giant sold huge quantities of highly addictive opioid medications and that they did so in a way that violated federal law. NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann has been investigating Walmart and is with me this morning. Hi there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, David.

GREENE: So let's start with exactly what the DOJ is alleging here about Walmart.

MANN: Yeah, so federal data shows Walmart's pharmacies dispensed billions of opioid pills over the years, often in rural communities that have been devastated by this addiction crisis. What the DOJ says now, David, is that company executives failed to stop a lot of suspicious opioid orders, hundreds of thousands of them. Walmart also allegedly failed to report potentially illegal opioid orders to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

During an online regulatory conference last week, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Daniel Feith signaled that this kind of lawsuit was coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL FEITH: Pharmacies are the last line of defense against prescription opioid diversion. But too many pharmacies for too long abdicated that responsibility.

MANN: So now the DOJ says it plans to hold Walmart accountable for allegedly contributing to this addiction crisis that's killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

GREENE: Well, do we know more about these allegedly illegal drug sales at Walmart and how they sort of played out?

MANN: Yeah, I've been looking at this. And I spoke with Ashwani Sheoran, who worked for Walmart as a pharmacist in rural Michigan in 2012, when the opioid epidemic there was exploding. And he says he quickly encountered red flags, patients who had come in with suspicious prescriptions for huge doses of opioids. Sometimes he saw patients traveling long distances to fill their opioid prescriptions. And also, he talked to patients who couldn't explain why they needed these powerful, highly addictive painkillers.

ASHWANI SHEORAN: Which is a direct indication that those prescriptions are not for any genuine medical purpose, instead are being abused by the patient and being distributed on the street.

MANN: Sheoran alleges that Walmart regularly ignored these warning signs and just went ahead and dispensed the opioids anyway. And the Justice Department now alleges Walmart did this all over the country, knowingly filling prescriptions that weren't for any legitimate medical need.

GREENE: I mean, it's such serious allegations, suggesting that a major company like this contributed to such a deadly crisis. What is Walmart saying? What is their response here?

MANN: Yeah, they're pushing back hard. They say that they tried in good faith over the years to comply with conflicting, confusing laws that regulate opioid prescribing. Walmart's attorneys also argue that the Justice Department has been trying to embarrass the company, allegedly part of an effort to squeeze and leverage a big financial settlement. I should say, the DOJ says that they've handled this investigation by the book.

GREENE: I mean, I suppose this is a serious moment for Walmart in terms of both legal risk and potentially financial risk.

MANN: Yeah. Yesterday's federal suit, David, really upped the ante. But Walmart was already being sued by a bunch of state and local governments that alleged the company's opioid sales were irresponsible and dangerous. Cases are moving forward in Ohio and West Virginia. And on top of the legal claims that could run into the billions of dollars, Walmart faces months, maybe years now, of headlines and disclosures about these opioid sales. And that means having its name associated with this opioid epidemic that continues to kill tens of thousands of Americans every year.

GREENE: All right. Brian Mann covers issues related to addiction for NPR. Brian, thank you so much, as always.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.