The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is investigating major pharmacy chains including CVS Caremark and Walgreens as part of a broad attack on prescription drug abuse. At the center of the investigations is oxycodone, a prescription pain medication that is often sold under the brand name OxyContin® or in combination with acetaminophin under the brand name Percocet®.
In February 2012, the DEA suspended the registrations (also known as DEA Numbers) of two CVS pharmacies in Florida after an investigation into what it called “suspiciously high” sales of oxycodone. The DEA also suspended the registration of a Cardinal Health distribution center in Florida that supplied the two CVS stores.
The suspensions mean that the two CVS pharmacies and the Cardinal Health distribution center cannot sell any controlled substances, not just oxycodone, until the suspensions are lifted and their DEA registrations are restored.
The DEA widened its investigation in April 2012 to include six Walgreens pharmacies and a Walgreens distribution center, also in Florida. According to the DEA, it issued inspection warrants after noticing a jump in purchases of oxycodone at these Walgreens locations. The inspection warrants allow DEA investigators to review pharmacy records and receipts, but the pharmacies are not required to stop selling controlled substances during the inspection.
For several years, the DEA has been fighting what it calls an epidemic of prescription pain medication abuse in Florida. On average, seven people die every day in Florida due to prescription drug abuse, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Deaths from narcotic painkillers now exceed those of heroin and cocaine combined.
The traditional response to prescription drug abuse has been undercover operations targeting individual physicians and pharmacists running so-called “pill mills,” where drug dealers and addicts can obtain and fill prescriptions with little or no inquiry into their actual medical conditions. While these investigations have resulted in the arrest and prosecution of significant numbers of physicians and pharmacists, the DEA contends that “the sheer volume of practitioners and pharmacies make it impossible to significantly impact the problem by targeting physicians and pharmacies alone.”
According to the DEA, “any effective strategy must address the problem at all levels, including distributors and suppliers.” Otherwise, the DEA says, enforcement actions against individual physicians and pharmacists “will only succeed in moving the problem around.”
It is too soon to tell whether the DEA’s enforcement actions against legitimate pharmacy chains in Florida are isolated events in a state with an unusually large prescription drug abuse problem or the start of a new trend in DEA investigations and enforcement actions nationwide. The Walgreens pharmacies and distribution center in Florida are still in the investigation stage, and both CVS Caremark and Cardinal Health are challenging the DEA’s suspension orders in federal court.
We will keep readers apprised of developments. In the meantime, if you are contacted by the DEA Office of Diversion Control, or other state or federal investigators, we invite you to contact our office at (212) 601-2728 to discuss your options.
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