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Nation & World

DOJ Sues Walmart Over Unlawful Distribution Of Controlled Substances

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Justice Department is suing Walmart. In a civil suit filed today, the Justice Department alleges that the company's pharmacies and warehouses helped fuel the opioid crisis. Walmart's pharmacy chain dispensed billions of opioid pills, including OxyContin and other highly addictive medications. And this lawsuit claims that the company broke the law hundreds of thousands of times. Walmart has filed a countersuit. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is here.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what the Justice Department alleges Walmart did wrong.

MANN: Yeah, so Walmart runs one of the biggest pharmacy chains in the country, a lot of those pharmacies in rural towns that have been devastated by this opioid crisis. Federal law requires companies that sell opioids like OxyContin to do so really carefully, monitoring for signs that pills might be used improperly or sold on the black market and reporting any possible problems to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Now, according to the DOJ, Walmart did exactly the opposite, filling huge numbers of unsafe and illegal prescriptions, allegedly doing so for years without alerting the government.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about one of the biggest companies in the world here. Was this Justice Department suit against Walmart unexpected?

MANN: Actually, this legal fight has been brewing for a long time. Back in October, Walmart filed a preemptive lawsuit against the Justice Department, essentially trying to head off this case. And at the time, Walmart's attorneys acknowledged they might face civil and also criminal charges.

Since then, NPR has been looking into this. And we found that some of the company's own former pharmacists tried for years to raise the alarm about allegedly illegal activity. Ashwani Sheerin (ph) is a pharmacist who worked for Walmart in rural Michigan. He told NPR he saw real red flags - pill mill doctors and people addicted to opioids who were allegedly using Walmart as a drug source.

ASHWANI SHEERIN: I start my job at 8. And I see that patients - 15 to 20 are already lined up, get their prescriptions filled - morphine sulfate, oxycodone and other straight narcotic which are from the Schedule II category.

MANN: Now, Sheerin worked for Walmart in 2012 and 2013, when the prescription opioid epidemic, Ari, was raging, killing tens of thousands of people a year. And he alleges that when he told Walmart managers that opioids were being sold inappropriately, they told him, he says, to keep quiet.

SHEERIN: They told me, do not reach out to the DEA, or do not call the police. If you're going to do so, your employment going to be terminated immediately.

MANN: Now, Sheerin's not alone making this allegation. In addition to the federal lawsuit that was filed today, Ari, Walmart faces a wave of opioid-related lawsuits from local and state governments all over these opioid sales.

SHAPIRO: And you said Walmart has also filed a countersuit against the Justice Department. What is the allegation there?

MANN: Yeah, this is really interesting. Walmart, first of all, denies any wrongdoing. And in that lawsuit filed in October, they allege the DOJ and the Drug Enforcement Administration are trying to embarrass the company, trying to squeeze it for a big civil settlement. Walmart says it tried to sell opioids safely but was stymied by conflicting state and federal regulations. In a statement this afternoon, Walmart again accused federal agents of ethics violations. And they say they only filled legal prescriptions issued by licensed doctors.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, what's at stake here? What could the penalties be if Walmart loses?

MANN: Yeah, this could run into the billions of dollars, Ari. The money could be significant. Much smaller firms, like Purdue Pharma, that have been caught up in the opioid crisis have settled for billions. But there's another potential cost here, and that's reputation. Walmart is just the latest name brand American company to find itself entangled in the legal and public relations backlash from opioids. As these lawsuits against Walmart move forward, the company faces the potential of months of headlines, linking its pharmacies with this addiction epidemic that's killed more than 400,000 Americans.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reporting on the Justice Department today suing Walmart for its sales of opioids.

Thanks, Brian.

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