Doctors Say Walmart Opioid Policy Tough to Swallow

Doctors Say Walmart Opioid Policy Tough to Swallow
A Walmart pharmacy associate inspects a vial of medication. (Walmart)

Walmart’s new strategy to help stop opioid abuse isn’t sitting well with some doctors.

The plan, which the Bentonville retailer unveiled in May, calls for Walmart and Sam’s Club to limit initial opioid prescriptions to no more than a seven-day supply.

The problem for doctors, however, is if a patient needs an eight-day — or longer — supply, Walmart pharmacies won’t fill it.

“If the physician feels that eight days is necessary, the pharmacist is actually refusing to fill a legal, valid prescription,” said David Wroten, executive vice president of the Arkansas Medical Society. “We believe that the policy … borders on practicing medicine.”

He said the pharmacists have no way of knowing whether the prescription is for an acute condition. Instead, the pharmacist has to call the doctors and have them change their prescription to meet Walmart’s policy.

(The Arkansas State Medical Board discourages, but doesn’t prohibit, physicians from writing prescriptions for acute pain for more than seven days, Wroten said.)

“You can’t call these prescriptions in over the phone because they’re a controlled substance,” Wroten said. “It’s an administrative issue more than anything else.”

The American Medical Association Opioid Task Force, of which the Arkansas Medical Society is a member, has brought the concerns about the practice to Walmart. But so far, Walmart hasn’t taken any action and there’s no indication that it’s going to, Wroten said

The AMA Task Force will continue to make its case to Walmart to try to get it to change its policy, he said.

Walmart didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment by deadline.

When Walmart’s policy was announced in May, it was news to the Task Force.

The Task Force members, including the Arkansas Medical Society, had met with Walmart at its headquarters months before the announcement, Wroten said. “At no time during that meeting did they bring up this potential policy and ask anybody’s opinion of it,” he said. “It wasn’t discussed at all.”

Wroten said most of the complaints about the practice have tapered off since the summer. He said he suspects doctors are now telling patients not to get their opioid prescriptions filled at Walmart.

“Most of the complaints have been from northwest Arkansas, where patients don’t have a lot of choices,” he said. In northwest Arkansas there are a lot of Walmart pharmacies and many employer health plans are self-funded. “You may not have a choice but to go to a Walmart pharmacy,” he said.