By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Major pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt and Johnson & Johnson are often singled out for their role in the nation’s opioid crisis. But wholesalers, pharmacies and other parts of the drug distribution system are also coming under scrutiny.
This week the former president and former compliance officer for an Ohio drug distributor and two West Virginia pharmacists were arrested after being indicted for conspiring to distribute controlled substances.
The company, Miami-Luken, supplied drugs to over 200 pharmacies in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and Tennessee, generating over $173 million in sales annually.
Prosecutors say Miami-Luken distributed opioid pain medication “outside the scope of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose.”
Between 2011 and 2015, the company allegedly ignored “obvious signs of abuse” by distributing more than 2.3 million oxycodone pills and 2.6 million hydrocodone pills to a pharmacy in Oceana, West Virginia, a town of less than 1,400 people.
From 2008 to 2011, over 3.7 million hydrocodone pills were supplied by Miami-Luken to a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, which has about 400 people.
Criminal Charges Rare
According to CNN, it’s only the second time a drug distributor has been criminally charged with illegally distributing opioid painkillers. In April, two former executives of the Rochester Drug Co-Operative in upstate New York were charged with drug trafficking for failing the stop suspicious orders for opioids.
In previous cases, wholesalers, pharmacies and even hospitals paid heavy fines for not being alert to suspicious activity. Last year, for example, Effingham Health System of Georgia agreed to pay a $4.1 million settlement after the DEA uncovered the diversion of tens of thousands of oxycodone tablets from its hospital.
In 2017, CVS Health agreed to pay a $5 million fine to settle allegations that several CVS pharmacies in California failed to detect thefts of hydrocodone. In 2015, CVS paid a $22 million fine because two of its Florida pharmacies filled bogus prescriptions for opioids.
Cardinal Health, one of the nation’s largest drug wholesalers, was fined $34 million by the DEA in 2012 after it failed to report suspicious orders for hydrocodone at a Florida distribution facility.
The list goes on and on. The point is that no one went to prison or was criminally charged in any of these cases. Which may be about to change. The four defendants in the Miami-Luken case face up to 20 years in prison.
“Today’s arrests should be a wakeup call to distributors and pharmacists who are allowing opioid prescription pills to be illegally sold and dispensed from their facilities,” said DEA Assistant Administrator John Martin. “These actions will not be tolerated by the DEA, and they will be brought to justice.”
Patients Caught in the Middle
Big fines and prison terms may be appropriate, but not if they result in legitimate patients with legitimate prescriptions being denied access to opioids. That’s what happened in April to a California woman with Stage 4 terminal breast cancer, who couldn’t get a prescription filled for Norco at her local Rite Aid pharmacy.
April Doyle’s tearful, 6-minute video about her experience went viral online, and she wound up getting apologies from a Rite Aid vice-president, the store manager and even the pharmacist who sent her away without pain medication.
Rite-Aid’s caution in filling opioid prescriptions may have stemmed from being added a few months earlier as a defendant in New York City’s opioid lawsuit (along with CVS, Walgreens and Walmart) by the law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy.
“Many plaintiffs in opioid lawsuits are amending their complaints to include these retailers because they failed to monitor the drugs sold out of their pharmacy windows,” Simmons Hanly said in a statement.
The Washington Post released a report this week on how drug companies, wholesalers and pharmacies “saturated the country” with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 through 2012. Those pills, according to the Post, “fueled the prescription opioid epidemic” and resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths.
But as Jeffrey Singer points out in Cato at Liberty, the Post is contributing to a false narrative about the opioid crisis by pinning the blame on prescription opioids, while largely ignoring the fact that most deaths are caused by illicit drugs such as heroin and illicit fentanyl.
“The overdose problem has never been a product of doctors treating patients for pain. It has always been a product of (a growing population of) nonmedical users accessing drugs in a dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition,” Singer wrote. “The continued obsession about the number of pain pills being prescribed causes patients to go undertreated for their pain and will not make one IV drug user pull the needle out of their arm.”