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the opioid epidemic

Justice Department sues Walmart for alleged role in opioid crisis

The Justice Department on Tuesday sued Walmart, claiming lax oversight in its pharmacies helped fuel the opioid epidemic.

In one of the Trump administration's last shots at big-name facilitators of opioid abuse across the U.S., the DOJ alleged Walmart understaffed its pharmacies to cut costs, The Wall Street Journal reports. In turn, overworked pharmacy staffers didn't catch invalid or otherwise problematic opioid prescriptions they shouldn't have filled, the suit alleges.

While big pharmaceutical companies pressured doctors to dole out painkillers and controlled substances, pharmacies are expected to refuse to fill questionable prescriptions. But understaffing allegedly made this impossible in Walmart's more than 5,000 pharmacies. And as Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney in Colorado, put it, "Walmart's pharmacies ordered opioids in a way that went essentially unmonitored and unregulated," violating the Controlled Substances Act as early as mid-2013.

Walmart had been expecting these charges, and sought to fend them off preemptively with its own lawsuit against the Justice Department in October. Walmart blamed the DOJ's alleged lack of oversight for fueling the opioid epidemic, and sought a reprieve from a judge from any future DOJ lawsuit.

The Trump DOJ had previously settled a massive lawsuit with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma over its role in the opioid crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from opioid overdoses over the past 20 years. While those numbers have decreased over the past few years, experts give the administration's handling of the crisis mixed reviews.