Is Walmart a villain or victim of America’s deadly opioid crisis?

As the opioid crisis ravaged communities across the United States two years ago, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas at the time, Joe Brown, set about fixing blame on Walmart, alleging its pharmacies were filling prescriptions from “pill mill” doctors facilitating drug misuse and abuse by overprescribing narcotics.

The Department of Justice has also had a long-running civil investigation into Walmart’s pharmacies. The Bentonville, Arkansas, retail behemoth is now preemptively suing the Department of Justice, asking a federal district court to untangle the contradictory laws that have left Walmart open to investigation. The “DOJ is threatening to sue Walmart for not going even further in second-guessing doctors,” Walmart said in a press release, while “state health regulators are threatening Walmart and our pharmacists for going too far and interfering in the doctor-patient relationship.”

Walmart has been tightening its policies on filling opioid prescriptions, according to its “opioid stewardship initiative” – not just questioning particular scripts, but refusing to fill any prescription for controlled substances from doctors about whom the company had doubts. In part to appease federal regulators, Walmart applied various restrictions on controlled substances. But soon state authorities accused the company of violating state regulations – even of committing crimes – by blocking prescriptions or even just filling smaller quantities of drugs than doctors had specified. The company also received pushback from medical groups that accused Walmart of trampling on doctors’ prescribing prerogatives.

Walmart’s damned-if-you-fill-the-script, damned-if-you-don’t bind reflects the problems faced by large chain pharmacies, which also include CVS and Walgreens. They are among the chief targets in opioid-related lawsuits that may be some of the most complicated and expensive litigation in American history – the so-called National Prescription Opiate Litigation. The companies didn’t get there on their own: Contradictory regulations, demands, and threats from Washington and the states have combined to create a tangle trapping the pharmacies, leaving them exposed to plaintiffs’ lawyers in a massive “multi-district litigation” playing out in an Ohio court.

The nationwide tobacco litigation of the 1990s was complex enough, involving the states and a handful of cigarette manufacturers. By contrast, plaintiffs in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation – counties, boroughs, parishes, cities, townships, municipalities, and villages – number in the thousands. They are looking for just about everyone in the opioid business – manufacturers, distributors, and retailers – to pay for the opioid misuse that has been so costly to society. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are seeking damages well into the billions.

The court case consolidated in 2017 was supposed to get rolling in November, but has recently been postponed to the spring out of concerns COVID-19 would spread through a crowded courthouse.

The “multi-district litigation” follows efforts by federal prosecutors who have tried to build both criminal and civil cases against pharmacies, including Walmart, for not acting soon enough in blocking all prescriptions written by doctors pharmacists had questions about.

Pharmacies, though, are a curious place to assign blame for the opioid epidemic. They don’t make the drugs: Controlled substances are

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Utah heart attack victim competes for medical care amid surge in Covid-19 cases

The virus now had the ability to potentially kill a patient — his patient — even if she wasn’t infected.

Hours before, Terry, a 47-year-old mother and wife, had suffered a heart attack in her Herriman, Utah, home. According to her sister, she had to be revived four times in the ambulance on the way to the nearest hospital.

Once there, the medical staff and her doctor quickly determined Terry would likely die if she didn’t get the more sophisticated life-saving treatment found in an intensive care unit of a larger hospital.

“He (the doctor) told us right away, we’re doing everything we can to try and find a hospital that can take Laurie, and we can’t find one,” Stephanie Deer, Terry’s sister, said.

“If you would have seen the look on that doctor’s face, he was incredulous. He couldn’t believe he was telling us this.”

The coronavirus pandemic will get better next year but first we're going to have a 'horrible winter,' top doctor says

Deer and her sister are not alone.

The state is experiencing “one of the worst (coronavirus) outbreaks in the country,” Utah Gov. Garry Herbert said Tuesday.

As a result, patients suffering other life-threatening medical events — non-Covid related — are in a dangerous competition for limited specialized medical care.

Utah is in the middle of the worst period for new Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began. The state is among the 14 that reported their peak Covid-19 hospitalizations in the past week, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

The state’s total ICU usage was at almost 70%, Herbert said Tuesday, and almost 16% of the state’s ICU beds are used to treat Covid-19 patients.

On Friday, the University of Utah hospital’s ICU was at 104% capacity.

Covid surge taking a toll on Utah doctors

Dr. Emily Spivak, among the doctors helping treat Covid patients in Utah, feels frustrated and upset by the surge in cases — because she said she knows this shouldn’t be happening. Coronavirus is preventable by hand washing, social distancing and mask wearing.

She reached her breaking point in a parking lot outside the level one trauma center where she works in Salt Lake City.

“Well I was trying so hard not to,” she said, referring to her tears. “I mean honestly this is just super frustrating.”

Spivak said she sees many people in public no longer following US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines — and believes they’ve just grown complacent.

“I don’t see an end. No one’s doing anything to stop what’s happening,” she said. “It’s kind of like people just are going out and living their lives not realizing that they are exhausting our healthcare system.”

Deer said she witnessed the frustration of doctors firsthand.

“I watched those nurses call for hours, trying other systems, doing everything they could, I mean desperate.” she said.

“I don’t know how the doctors and nurses and things are going to be able to keep this up when your whole life, your whole profession is dedicated to saving people’s lives and you can’t access medical care for a patient.”

And she

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