The Battle between the US Department of Justice and Walmart Serves as Reminder that Pharmacy Negligence Remains a Threat

Updated April 6, 2021.

In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, alleging that it unlawfully filled large numbers of opioid prescriptions attributing to a national epidemic of opioid addiction.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), more than one in five Americans had an opioid prescription filled in 2018.  Unsuspecting patients became addicted to the highly habit-forming drugs.   The cost of treating the addicted patients has been a significant burden on both state and federal healthcare resources resulting in claims against manufacturers and pharmacies.

Walmart fired back, filing a lawsuit alleging that the Department of Justice was using it as a scapegoat to diverge attention away from its own failures to effectively handle the public health crisis over opioid addiction. In early February 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas dismissed Walmart’s complaint, stating that Walmart failed to allege agency action sufficient to show that the agency had waived its right to sovereign immunity.  According to Bloomberglaw.com, a Walmart spokesperson reportedly indicated that Walmart will appeal the decision, stating, “We brought this lawsuit because Walmart and our pharmacists are torn between demands from the DEA on one side and federal health agencies and state regulators on the other, and patients are caught in the middle. Our pharmacists and patients deserve better than the current patchwork of inconsistent, conflicting and contradictory demands from federal and state regulators”. 

Clearly this battle will continue.   The case calls attention to a national problem of pharmacy negligence and medication errors.  According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agency receives more than 100,000 reports each year associated with a suspected medication error.  The reports come from drug manufacturers, healthcare professionals and consumers through MedWatch, the Agency’s safety information and adverse event reporting program.  Medication errors can have serious adverse effects including death, hospitalization, disability or birth defects.

Medication errors can occur at any point in the process.  A physician can make a mistake in writing the prescription or fail to recognize a dangerous interaction with another medication you are taking.  Mistakes can be made at the pharmacy level if a prescription is filled with the wrong dosage or the wrong medication entirely. Errors at the distribution source due to poor quality control procedures can result in entire lots of medication bottles being recalled due to mislabeling.

The FDA recommends that consumers play an important part in their own safety recommending as follows:

  • Know the various risks and causes for medication errors. See ISMP’s consumer web page, ConsumerMedSafety.orgExternal Link Disclaimer, for helpful tools and resources to protect yourself from medication errors.
  • Find out what drug you’re taking and what it is for. Rather than simply letting the doctor write you a prescription and send you on your way, be sure to ask the name of the drug, and the purpose of the drug.
  • Find out how to take the drug and make sure you understand the directions. Ask if the medicine needs to be kept in the refrigerator.
  • Check the container’s label every time you take a drug. This is especially important if you are taking several drugs because it will lower your risk of accidentally taking the wrong medicine.
  • Keep drugs stored in their original containers. Many pills look alike, so keeping them in their original containers will help know the name of the drug and how to take them. If you are having trouble keeping multiple medications straight, ask your doctor or pharmacist about helpful aids.
  • Keep an updated list of all medications taken for health reasons, including OTC drugs, supplements, medicinal herbs, and other substances. Give a copy of this list to your healthcare provider.
  • Be aware of the risk of drug/drug or drug/food interactions.
  • If in doubt or you have questions about your medication, ask your pharmacist or other healthcare provider.
  • Report suspected medication errors to MedWatch.

You should also be certain to know the dosage of the medication that has been prescribed.  Ask your provider if they are writing the prescription for a name brand or if it might be filled with a generic medication.  If so, get the name of the acceptable generic substitute.    Make sure that the medication you receive is the drug that was prescribed. Don’t assume that what is in your prescription bottle is what is listed on the label.  You can look at what your pills should look like by color, size, shape and other identifiers at Pill Identifier – Find Pills by Color, Shape, Imprint, or Picture (webmd.com).  Finally, be certain to read the risks and potential adverse side effects of the medication that you have received. Too many consumers fail to read the pamphlets they receive with their medication which contain important warnings that might have been overlooked for by your physician.

 

If you or a loved one have suffered serious harm do to a prescription error, the attorneys at Lacy Katzen LLP may be able to help. Call for a free consultation.

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