CVS probed in alleged loss of painkillers

CVS Caremark Corp. could face as much as $29 million in fines for allegedly losing track of hydrocodone pills at four California stores. They may have been sold on the black market.

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CVS Caremark Corp. could face as much as $29 million in fines for allegedly losing track of prescription painkillers at four of its California stores, from which authorities said thousands of pills may have been sold on the black market. Doug Kolk reports

CVS Caremark Corp. could face as much as $29 million in fines for allegedly losing track of prescription painkillers at four of its California stores, from which authorities said thousands of pills may have been sold on the black market.

Officials at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the California Board of Pharmacy told me Monday that more than 37,000 pills were apparently taken from CVS stores in Modesto, Fairfield, Dixon and Turlock.

Meanwhile, CVS pharmacists in Southern California said they've been instructed by the drugstore chain to get their paperwork in order so that no other prescription meds are found to be missing.

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Casey Rettig, a special agent in the DEA's San Francisco office, said warrants were served on the four California CVS stores last May. She declined to comment further because the agency's investigation is still open.

Virginia Herold, executive officer of the state Board of Pharmacy, which licenses and oversees all drugstores in California, said each of the missing pills — all painkillers, such as Vicodin — could have a street value of as much as $10.

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento, said CVS faces 2,973 possible violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act for alleged discrepancies between the company's records and its inventory of prescription drugs.

The maximum fine for these violations could be $29 million, she said.

Horwood said CVS has yet to respond to a letter sent last month by her office. The letter outlines the alleged violations and seeks more information from the company.

Officials, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, described the loss of painkillers as a big problem throughout the pharmacy business.

In some cases, the drugs have gone missing because pharmacists "self-medicate," they said. But in most cases, the officials said, lower-level pharmacy workers, such as technicians, have made off with the drugs and then sold them to others.

Such thefts typically come to light after pharmacies perform routine inspections of their inventory. They're required by law to report any missing meds within 14 days of discovery.

According to formerly sealed affidavits submitted as part of the DEA's application for search warrants, an investigator for the agency, Brian Glaudel, said the Sacramento district office became aware in late 2012 of losses of numerous hydrocodone tablets from CVS stores in the region.

Hydrocodone is a narcotic painkiller sold under various brand names, including Vicodin and Norco.

The pending investigations stem from a case involving a CVS store in Rocklin, northeast of Sacramento.

Glaudel said CVS notified officials in December 2012 that a pharmacy worker in the Rocklin store was seen hiding a bottle of hydrocodone in her pants.

The worker subsequently admitted to CVS managers that she had stolen more than 20,000 hydrocodone tablets, Glaudel said.

The worker was arrested and charged with embezzlement, he said. It's unclear whether the stolen hydrocodone was recovered in the Rocklin case.

Glaudel said DEA investigators went over records for other CVS stores in the area and found more than 16,000 hydrocodone tablets missing from the Turlock store, 11,000 from the Fairfield store and almost 5,000 each from the Modesto and Dixon stores.

Michael DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman, said the investigations are aimed at "assuring compliance with state and federal requirements for administrative record keeping related to invoices and inventory for controlled substances."

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