Safeway Fined $3 Million for Painkiller Thefts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Safeway has agreed to pay a $3 million fine to settle allegations that it failed to timely report the theft of tens of thousands of hydrocodone tablets from pharmacies in Alaska and Washington state. The company also agreed to a compliance agreement with the Drug Enforcement Administration to ensure such lapses do not happen again.

The DEA learned of the hydrocodone thefts at Safeway pharmacies in North Bend, Washington and Wasilla, Alaska in April 2014, months after Safeway discovered the pills were stolen by employees. Under federal law, pharmacies are required to notify the DEA of the theft or significant loss of any controlled substance within one business day of the discovery of the theft or loss.

A DEA investigation of the case was later widened to review practices at all Safeway pharmacies nationwide between 2009 and 2014.  The investigation revealed a “widespread practice” of Safeway pharmacies failing to timely report missing or stolen controlled substances. 

“At this crucial juncture in our efforts to combat abuses of prescription drugs, it is imperative that pharmacies notify DEA immediately when drugs are stolen or missing.  A quick response to such reports is one of the best tools DEA has in stopping prescription drug diversion,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Keith Weis.

As part of the settlement, Safeway will close a pharmacy in Belmont, CA and will suspend filling prescriptions for controlled substances for four months at a pharmacy in North Bend, WA.

“Safeway cooperated fully with government investigators throughout the investigation and remains an active partner with the DEA, local law enforcement and the communities it serves in the fight against prescription drug abuse, including the abuse of opioids,” the company said in a statement.  “Since early 2015, the Company has significantly enhanced its controlled substance monitoring program and implemented a variety of improved policies and procedures to enforce compliance with the Controlled Substances Act.”

Safeway is the latest in a string of pharmacy operators that have been fined for failing to comply with the Controlled Substances Act.

Last week CVS Health Corp agreed pay a $5 million fine to settle allegations that several CVS pharmacies in California failed to detect thefts of the opioid painkiller hydrocodone. In January, Costco paid nearly $12 million to settle allegations that its pharmacies filled invalid prescriptions and failed to maintain accurate records at two central fill locations in Sacramento, California and Everett, Washington.

“We call on all participants in drug distribution to carefully monitor their practices to stem the flow of narcotics to those who should not have them,” said U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes.  “Pharmacies have a key role to play in making sure only those with legitimate prescriptions receive these powerful and potentially addictive drugs, including by timely reporting losses of those drugs.  Failure to do so hamstrings DEA’s investigative abilities and frustrates some of our best methods at curbing abuse.”