KEY POINTS

  • Prosecutors investigated Walmart after learning about pharmacy practices
  • Walmart pharmacists had complained about filling opioid prescriptions
  • Texas sought criminal charges against Walmart before DOJ intervened in 2018

Newly uncovered documents reveal how opioid-related criminal charges against Walmart leadership were dropped at the behest of the Department of Justice in 2018. They show how Walmart pharmacies across the country had been essentially operating as pill mills, with pharmacists being made to fill out problematic prescriptions despite making their protests clear.

This is the first time investigations of Walmart and its role in the opioid crisis undertaken by various states has been made known to the public.

A report from ProPublica found numerous instances of Walmart pharmacists reaching out to corporate leadership over concerns about the types of prescriptions they were being asked to fill. In one case, a pharmacist reported a doctor from Florida who had various patients filling opioid prescriptions in more than 30 states at Walmart pharmacies.

Walmart’s management responded by telling pharmacists that they couldn’t blacklist doctors and instead had to judge whether or not to fill a prescription on a case-by-case basis. According to ProPublica, an internal email said that the focus should be on “driving sales.”

Investigators in various states, including Texas federal district attorney Joe Brown, caught wind of this conflict over filling opioid prescriptions at Walmarts. Brown began investigating the retail giant, discovering that a number of Texans had died from overdoses linked to Walmart pharmacy-issued prescriptions.

When Walmart became aware that Brown and his team were preparing to file criminal charges, they appealed to top officials in the Department of Justice for help. That help came in August 2018, when the Trump administration told Walmart that no charges would be filed.

Several months later, Brown’s team was given the opportunity to make their pitch to then-deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. With the Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting head, Uttam Dhillon, backing criminal charges against Walmart, they made their case.

When Dhillon explained that fining Walmart would not be a sufficient punishment because the company has “more money than it know what to do with,” Rosenstein responded, “not that there’s anything wrong with that. We are all capitalists here.”

Ultimately, Rosenstein was unconvinced and declined to allow Brown to pursue charges. One of the top members of Brown’s team, Eastern District’s civil division chief Joshua Russ, soon stepped down in protest, writing in his resignation letter that “corporations cannot poison Americans with impunity.”

Currently, legal actions against Walmart have all but stalled. This month House Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Jerry Nadler, D-NY, sent a letter to both Dhillon and U.S. Attorney General William Barr expressing his concern over the “inability to hold prescription opioid distributors and chain pharmacies accountable.”

Opioid painkillers like these are linked to thousands of overdose deaths in the US Opioid painkillers like these are linked to thousands of overdose deaths in the US Photo: AFP / Eric BARADAT