Federal authorities have expanded their crackdown on painkiller abuse, charging a major health care company and two CVS pharmacies in Florida with violating their licenses to sell powerful pain pills and other drugs.
The Drug Enforcement Administration linked Cardinal Health to unusually high shipments of the controlled drugs to four pharmacies.
On Friday, the DEA suspended Cardinal's controlled substances license at its Lakeland, Fla., distribution center, which services 2,500 pharmacies in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
A federal judge temporarily halted the suspension the same day after Cardinal, a $1.3 billion company, said it would stop supplying the drugs to the four pharmacies. A hearing on the suspension order was set for Feb. 13 in Washington, D.C.
"We believe the DEA is wrong," CEO George Barrett said on the company's website.
The action comes as the DEA is cracking down on pill mills -- rogue doctors and shady pharmacies that divert the highly addictive pills, such as oxycodone, to drug dealers.
"This is still an ongoing investigation," said DEA Special Agent David Melenkevitz, spokesman for the Miami Field Division. "We will be able to provide more information on Monday."
On Saturday, the DEA raided two CVS pharmacies in Sanford, Fla., and suspended their licenses to dispense controlled substances.
CVS said Saturday that it had taken steps with DEA's knowledge to stop filling prescriptions from doctors thought to be prescribing improperly.
"We informed a small number of Florida physicians that CVS/pharmacy will no longer fill the prescriptions they write for Schedule II narcotics," spokeswoman Carolyn Castel said in a written statement. "Distributions of oxycodone to the two Florida stores have decreased by approximately 80% in the last three months compared to the prior three months -- we believe in large part due to our action."
In its suspension order, the DEA alleges that Cardinal knew or should have known that the four retail pharmacies had purchased far more drugs than it needed to fulfill legitimate prescriptions.
The company called the DEA action a "drastic overreaction" that would disrupt delivery of critical medications to hospitals and pharmacies.
Cardinal has "extensive processes" to prevent diversion of its pharmaceuticals for illegitimate use, Barrett said. Cardinal's internal controls have flagged more than 160 pharmacies in Florida and 350 pharmacies nationwide for "suspicious order patterns," he said. Barrett said the DEA is holding the company responsible for a part of the supply chain it does not control.
"At the time we filled these orders, the pharmacies held valid state board of pharmacy and DEA licenses," Barrett said in a call to investors Friday. "Pharmaceutical distributors do not influence the manufacture of controlled medicines. We do not write prescriptions. We do not dispense controlled medicines, nor do we license pharmacies. Our role is as a distributor, a critical link in the supply chain between pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmacies."
Friday's action is the third time in five years the DEA has suspended Cardinal's controlled substances license. In November 2007, the DEA suspended the license for Cardinal's Auburn, Wash., distribution facility for selling 18 million hydrocodone pills in nine months to retail drugstores. The company sold 605,000 pills to one store in Burlington, Wash., over a seven-month period, the DEA said.