As Maine and the nation grapple with a new and overwhelming public health crisis, an investigation released last month shows that we remain unable to fully reckon with the last one.

ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news outlet, found that Walmart, from 2011 to 2017, filled “hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate prescriptions,” despite warnings from Walmart pharmacists to corporate executives that doctors were inappropriately or illegally distributing large amounts of the drugs to patients, including some in Maine. It was a national problem and a matter of policy, prosecutors found, not the result of a few bad actors.

To lay it out in stark terms, the federal investigation found evidence that Walmart, the world’s largest company, was acting at the height of the opioid epidemic as a knowing supplier to drug dealers across the country – part of a focus on “driving sales,” as one executive put it.

Following a nearly two-year investigation, the Republican U.S. attorney of the Eastern District in Texas believed there was enough evidence to prosecute the company. The acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration said that the actions appeared criminal.

However, in 2018, Trump administration political appointees in the Justice Department prevented legal action against Walmart itself or against individual executives. This occurred at every turn; even a civil case was stopped.

The investigation into Walmart found that, even as its own pharmacists warned them and competitors stopped filling prescriptions from suspect doctors, Walmarts in Maine, North Carolina, Kansas and other states filled hundreds of thousands of prescriptions from physicians running so-called “pill mills.” These doctors were writing prescriptions almost solely for opioids, and they were writing a lot of them. One doctor had sent patients to Walmarts in more than 30 states.

In one case, ProPublica reported, Walmart continued to work with a Texas doctor who their competitors in pharmacy sales had cut off, and who was later convicted of illegal distribution of opioids and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The drugs he prescribed were linked to seven overdose deaths.

From early 2014 to March 2017, the doctor filled more than 13,000 prescriptions through the company – an average of 11 a day, and good for more than 1.3 million doses.

Those medications weren’t going to people who needed them. They weren’t being used for a medical purpose. The misery they caused is incalculable.

Yet there will be no criminal case. At the same time, people have spent time in Maine jails for possession of just a few of these pills.

Walmart is among the many makers, distributors and retailers of opioids involved in discussions on a Big Tobacco-like national settlement over their role in an epidemic that in the last two decades has killed more than 200,000 Americans, including thousands of Mainers.

But whatever the company ends up paying, it won’t be enough. Like others, they not only played a role in making opioids available on a massive scale but also appear to have done so knowing that those opioids were being misused.

The opioid epidemic is full of stories of corporations ignoring the harm they were causing in the name of profits. Even after we all recognize the scope of that harm, it appears that most of the companies will walk away with a slap on the wrist.


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