Former Walmart Pharmacists Say Company Ignored Red Flags As Opioid Sales Boomed
An npr investigation has found that pharmacists. Working for walmart tried for years to raise the alarm about the company's sale of highly addictive opioids. walmart says it broke no laws and acted responsibly. The company faces lawsuits including a complaint. By the justice department. Walmart has been an npr underwriter which we cover like other company and npr addiction correspondent. Brian man has the story to understand. The rule pharmacists and pharmacy chains like walmart played in the opioid crisis. It helps to look at one walmart. Customer a woman named christina dine. She was in her twenties when a doctor ohio prescribed her. Large doses of powerful opioids at the highest. I was prescribed three thirty milligram. Oxy code on a day with two fifteen milligram. Koto kind of thrown in there for quote unquote breakthrough pain. Dine had been diagnosed with bositis painful but not the sort of ailment were a highly addictive narcotic is generally recommended under federal law after a doctor writes the prescription especially one like dines that poses a serious risk of addiction. The pharmacist is also required to play an important gatekeeper role. It's a big part of their job to make sure powerful drugs are only dispensed when there's a legitimate medical purpose dine. Says she had her. Opioid prescriptions filled repeatedly for two years at a number of pharmacies including her local walmart. No one warned her about the danger. I never once had a pharmacist or any other pharmacy staff question. It questioned me. Ask me any questions whatsoever. Dine became addicted to pain pills and later heroin. This was twenty twelve and at first she didn't realize she was part of an opioid epidemic. Already killing tens of thousands of people year by the time dine fell into addiction. Walmart was doing business shipping. Hundreds of millions of opioid pills every year to its chain of pharmacies. The country a shawnee sheeran is a pharmacist. Who saw this happening in walmart. Stores where he worked in rural michigan. He says there were often lines of people. When the store opened waiting to buy opioids i see that bishops. Fifteen to twenty are already lined up to get their prescriptions. Filled cheering told npr. He saw things that scared people who looked healthy. We're getting a lot of pain pills. They were traveling hundreds of miles to fill their prescriptions at his walmart store when he tried to call doctors to find out what was happening. He often couldn't get them on the phone. He was so troubled. He sent warnings to walmart's corporate headquarters in arkansas. So i send the email to walmart executive levels. And i explain them that. Their large number of controlled substance and the narcotics dispensed not for genuine purpose. Which are for distribution on the street. Cheering says nothing happened to fix the problem. And that made him angry so he kept trying warning warnings managers at walmart. Pharmacies seemed to be feeding a black market for opioid pills. They told me. Do not reach out to the da or do not. Call the police if you're going to do so your employment. Going to be terminated immediately records show sheer did contact local police and the drug enforcement administration. He was suspended by walmart. And later fired. He sued the company under a federal whistleblower. Statute a case still pending. Npr tried to ask wal mart about this. The company declined repeated interview requests and didn't respond to a list. Detailed questions it turns out sheeran wasn't the only pharmacist. Raising alarms internal company documents made public in lawsuits against walmart. Show pharmacists all over. The country kept warning. Company executives about opioids and about pill mill doctors sending patients to walmart. There was no oversight from a top of out the over dispensing of controlled substances. This is a pharmacist. Who worked for walmart in the south. Who says he left a couple of years ago voluntarily take another job. Npr agreed not to use his name because he fears a family member. Still employed by walmart. Could face retribution. He says walmart pharmacies kept doing business with doctors. Even when there were clear signs. Things weren't right. They were primary care doctors. They weren't like paint management doctors. They weren't oncologists and they were prescribing. Large amounts of opiates now again as part of their gatekeeper role. All pharmacists have the authority to reject suspicious. Prescriptions and walmart points out in public statements. This does happen at its pharmacies but as walmart shipped and sold hundreds of millions of pills a year industry experts in the pharmacists. Npr interviewed said. There was enormous pressure at walmart to say yes to dispense opioid pills quickly. You know they the walmart didn't make it so that it was easy for you to say no or to do the right thing. Another thing. we've learned from court documents filed in lawsuits against walmart. Is that pharmacists. Weren't the only ones raising alarms. Federal regulators also kept telling walmart it system for managing opioids and keeping patients. Safe wasn't good enough under pressure from the. Da walmart signed an agreement. Way back in twenty eleven promising national reforms the pharmacist. We talked who said things never improved. Again walmart declined. Npr's interview requests but the company has created a public campaign to explain. its opioid practices. This video posted last year. On walmart's website. We all have a responsibility to dispense opioid appropriately. And so when somebody comes star pharmacy and we're going to dispense them a medication we're gonna do it responsibly. We wanna make sure that they're safe and legal filings. Walmart attorneys acknowledged the. Da warned the company about red flags patterns of prescribing behavior. That could mean opioid prescriptions. Were unsafe or illegal. Walmart's has those advisories work legally binding and says government guidance on opioids was often confusing and contradictory. The company also argues. It was the government's job not walmart's to crack down on dangerous pill mill doctors. These arguments will be tested in courts around the country as lawsuits against walmart and other pharmacy chains move. People like christina. Dine will be watching. After filling her first prescription for oxy codeine pills back in twenty twelve dina says it took years to put her life back together. I i got sober and two thousand fifteen. After my daughter's father overdosed died. A kind of went in and out. I struggled for a bitch but I've been sober. Since two thousand seventeen dine is doing better now working as a recovery nurse helping others with addiction but more than two hundred and thirty thousand americans have died from overdoses. Linked directly to prescription opioids. Brian man npr news.