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Billings pharmacist worries Walmart settlement could create 'ripple effect'

Posted at 5:25 PM, Nov 16, 2022

BILLINGS — This week, Walmart settleda $3.1 billion lawsuitfor its pharmacies' role in opioid abuse. But at least one local Billings pharmacy owner believes his industry isn't to blame.

"Addiction has been a problem in society for years, and it’s going to be a problem for years to come. For them to hold pharmacies or health care accountable for the situation, I find it unacceptable," said Kyle Austin, pharmacist and owner of Pharm406, on Wednesday.

Austin is one of many pharmacists closely following the news of the settlement. The giant retailer promised the money to support to state and local governments grappling with overdose deaths. The news follows similar settlements from CVS and Walgreens earlier this month of around $5 billion dollars each.

Walmart was among a group of large retailers sued by a coalition of local governments and tribes who alleged the retailer contributed to the nation's opioid crisis. Their attorneys argued that large quantities of the drugs from the pharmacies were diverted into the hands of black-market dealers who sold the pills without regard for public health.

"Where the corporations got their hands caught in the cookie jar is because they move such a large volume. So, their volume contributed to it, but they still followed the rules that were put in place by the DEA, the FDA, the boards of pharmacy and so, that buck got passed on and they’re holding the major corporations accountable, probably because they’re the ones with a lot of money," added Austin.

That money will be used to help pay for addiction treatment and drug education in communities across the U.S. But Austin fears the settlement will ultimately have unintended consequences.

"This is going to cause a ripple effect. So, patients are going to be affected, independent pharmacies like mine are going to be affected, all the corporations are going to be affected, and the doctors are going to be affected. The reason for that is they’re going to create more rules, more barriers and so, we’re going to have less access to the medications people need and patients that need the medications are going to have more struggles and more barriers to get to them," Austin said.

Austin fears more red tape and higher costs, meaning new challenges for pharmacies and new barriers for patients. Austin believes a true solution depends on government leaders, who he says need to take responsibility for a problem many refuse to address.

"Logically, I think our government needs to take responsibility and do their job. So, if it’s the Montana board of pharmacy, they need to go in and create logical rules that doctors can follow, pharmacists can follow, and patients can still get the treatment if they need it. That’s really what needs to happen. We need to stop this blame game, “oh the pharmacies are responsible for the opioid pandemic.” They’re not. We’re here to provide this service to the patients in a reasonable manner. We just need to create those rules so the rules can be followed, and patients can still get the care they need," Austin added.