Why are the Sacklers worth $13 billion today? Answer: “The Oxy Express Explained”
By Mark A. York (July 30, 2018)
(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA)
A COMPARISON OF OXYCODONE PRESCRIBING
In the first six months of 2010, Ohio doctors and health care practitioners bought the second-largest number of oxycodone doses in the country at just under 1 million pills.
Florida doctors bought 40.8 million in the same period, the comparison is astounding, yet it flew under the DEA, Opioid Big Pharma and everyone elses radar for years and years.
Of the country’s top 50 oxycodone-dispensing clinics, 49 were in Florida. From August 2008 to November 2009, a new pain clinic opened in Broward and Palm Beach counties on average of every three days.
Pharmacies and distributors are at fault as well, pharmacies ordered jaw-dropping numbers of pills from opioid drug distributors, the middlemen between manufacturers and pharmacies.
90 of 100 of the nation’s top 100 oxy-buying doctors in 2010, were in Florida. 49 of 50 of the country’s top oxy-dispensing clinics were in Florida. For some reason this didn’t raise an alarm or cause anyone to look further at the time.
Purdue Pharma New What Was Happening In Florida
Purdue and the Sacklers chose to ignore Florida, because apparently nobody there sued them or complained. In 2007, in other states, the infamous drug maker and three of its executives pled guilty in federal court and paid out $634.5 million in fines for purposefully misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about the addictiveness of their opioid painkiller. Around the same time, Purdue was also sued by several states, including Washington, over similar allegations. Purdue agreed to a $19.5 million multi-state settlement. And in 2015, Purdue settled a case with Kentucky, agreeing to pay $24 million.
As part of the state settlements, Purdue was supposed to set up monitoring programs to make sure that its opioid drug didn’t wind up in the wrong hands. It was supposed to watch out for shady pharmacies, unusually large orders, or suspiciously frequent orders. But on this front, Everett alleges that Purdue once again put profits over people.
Obviously, this was ignored as the Florida based “Oxy Expres”; rolled on for years and years with np input, comment or oversight by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family other than “show me the money” and enjoying a life of luxury on the misery created and managed in the Purdue Pharma boardroom. But, the Purdue boardroom isn’t the only guilty “Opioid Big Pharma” industry player who designed and supported the opioid prescribing crisis.
For the current status of efforts to make Opioid Big Pharma accept responsibility in litigation filed in federal and state courts across the country, see: https://www.masstortnexus.com/Briefcases/254/OPIOID-CRISIS-BRIEFCASE-INCLUDING-MDL-2804-OPIATE-PRESCRIPTION-LITIGATION
Why Distributors Are Liable
Cardinal Health, one of the nation’s biggest distributors, sold two CVS pharmacies in Sanford a combined 3 million doses of oxycodone, flooding the town of 54,000 with an average of 250,000 oxycodone pills every month.
West of Jupiter, a Walgreens drug distribution center sold 2.2 million tablets to a single Walgreens’ pharmacy in tiny Hudson, a roughly six-month supply for each of its 12,000 residents. It shipped more than 1.1 million pills to each of two Fort Pierce Walgreens pharmacies.
For 40 days starting in late 2010, the distribution center shipped 3,271 bottles of oxycodone — 327,100 doses of the drug — to a Port Richey Walgreens pharmacy, prompting a distribution manager to ask: “How can they even house this many bottles?”
There were 53 million oxycodone prescriptions filled in 2013 by US pharmacies, according to NIDA. This translates to approximately one bottle of this addictive drug for every 6 people in the country. How was this not noticed by those responsible for monitoring narcotics prescribing in the United States?
Charts and Data On Florida’s Oxycontin Gold Mine
A Boardroom Contrived Opioid Epidemic
This is the pain chart created by the “Opioid Big Pharma Industry” to support massive over-prescribing of opioids across the country to everyone who walked in to a medical treatment facility, this was an effort to increase narcotic prescribing practices in mainstream medical care–and it worked very very well! This chart became a standard treatment assessment protocol tool across the country.
HOW WEST VIRGINIA WAS TARGETED
Reliably red on the political map, Huntington is a West Virginia town with a 182-year-old university, a storied football team and more than 100 churches.
It’s where Will Lockwood graduated from high school. It’s where he enrolled at Marshall University. It’s where he first tried OxyContin. By the time Lockwood entered Marshall, Detroit dealers were trickling into Huntington, selling OxyContin and pills with OxyContin’s active ingredient, oxycodone.
Even though Lockwood could step out his front door and get the drug, Detroit street dealers weren’t the preferred supplier, they were in Florida.
It may have been 1,000 miles away, but to Lockwood, getting OxyContin and oxycodone from Florida’s loosely regulated pain clinics “was legal, in a sense.”
Twice a month, different “crews” from Huntington crowded into vans and headed south to Palm Beach and Broward counties, home to more than 200 pill mills, the pain clinics where anyone with a fake ache and hard cash could walk out with pills and prescriptions.
After hitting a string of clinics, the Huntington crews drove back with “around 500 to 600 pills per person,” said Lockwood.
But it wasn’t just a few hundred pills. It was tens of thousands.
And it wasn’t just Huntington, The West Virginia vans were part of a nationwide caravan heading to South Florida. Cars bearing tags from Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Virginia and Ohio crowded into one clinic parking lot after another, loading up on pills and prescriptions.
News stories and law enforcement focused on those “parking lot” states in Appalachia, where dealers and addicts with a tank of gas or a cheap plane ticket traveled the “Oxy Express” to Palm Beach and Broward.
But Florida’s pill pipeline reached far beyond those roadways.
By 2010, Florida was the oxycodone drug dealer of choice for drug users and dealers in the Great Lakes, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions as well as the Southeast, DEA records show, an area spanning virtually every state east of the Mississippi. It wasn’t just that Florida guaranteed a flow of cheap oxycodone. For 10 years, key lawmakers and agency heads repeatedly looked the other way as crooked doctors and bogus clinics flooded almost half the nation with the highly addictive drug.
In failing to crack down, Florida extended by years the amount of time highly addictive oxycodone would be available to both first-time experimenters and addicts. It gave criminals the raw materials for trafficking. It gave Will Lockwood the OxyContin needed to feed his growing habit, It paved the way for his eventual jump to heroin.
Jumping state lines
Teenage high-school wrestling buddies in New Port Richey ran oxycodone into Tennessee; they were paid with cash hidden in teddy bears. A Hillsborough County man mailed 17,000 pills to Glen Fork, W.Va., a month’s supply for every man woman and child in the tiny town.
A Boston Chinatown crime boss trafficked pills from Sunrise into Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Wellington twins and pill mill kingpins Paul and Phil George, brothers who oversaw one of the largest operations in the country from their five Palm Beach and Broward clinics, pushing oxycodone into Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and South Carolina.
A husband and wife team operating out of a Forest Hill Boulevard clinic funneled pills to Delaware. At Palm Beach International Airport, two federal security agents accepted $500 a pop each time they waved through thousands of pillsbound for Connecticut and New York.
A Palm Bay man’s Puerto Rican family bought local pills destined for the working class town of Holyoke, Mass. In Rhode Island, police pulled over a Lauderhill man caught speeding through Providence. They found 903 oxycodone tablets and 56 morphine pills in the car.
Senior citizen and Tulane business graduate Joel Shumrak funneled more than 1 million pills into eastern Kentucky from his South Florida and Georgia clinics, much of it headed for street sales — an estimated 20 percent of the illicit oxycodone in the entire state.
Van loads of pill-seekers organized by “VIP buyers” traveled from Columbus, Ohio, to three Jacksonville clinics, where armed guards handled crowd control (federal indictment) and doctors generated prescriptions totaling 3.2 million pills in six months. In Miami, Vinny Colangelo created 1,500 internet website names to entice drug users throughout the nation to one of his six South Florida pain clinics or pharmacies.
Even the Mafia got in on the Florida oxy express action: A Bonanno crime family associate oversaw a local crew stocking up on Palm Beach and Broward pain clinic oxycodone, upstreaming profits to the New York family.
At times, it seemed almost no section of the country was free of Florida-supplied pills: When Olubenga Badamosi was arrested driving his Bentley Continental in Miami in 2011, the Oregon man was one of two traffickers overseeing a crew smuggling South Florida oxycodone to sell in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Denver as well as Oregon, Nevada, Texas and even Alaska.
Pharmacy delivers oxy ‘pot of gold’
It would be hard to overstate Florida’s role in feeding the country’s voracious appetite for oxycodone. Oxycodone 30-milligram tablets were favored by addicts. And in 2009 and 2010, roughly four of every 10 of those pills were sold in Florida. Small wonder: Of the nation’s top 100 oxycodone-buying doctors, 90 were in Florida.
Pharmacies, too, ordered jaw-dropping numbers of pills from drug distributors, the middlemen between manufacturers and pharmacies.
Cardinal Health, one of the nation’s biggest distributors, sold two CVS pharmacies in Sanford a combined 3 million doses of oxycodone, flooding the town of 54,000 with an average of 250,000 oxycodone pills every month.
West of Jupiter, a Walgreens drug distribution center sold 2.2 million tablets to a single Walgreens’ pharmacy in tiny Hudson, a roughly six-month supply for each of its 12,000 residents. It shipped more than 1.1 million pills to each of two Fort Pierce Walgreens pharmacies. By contrast, a single Walgreens pharmacy in the Central Florida townOviedo bought 169,700 doses of oxycodone in 30 days.
People on both sides of the counter knew what was going on: In a letter to the chief executive of Walgreens, Oviedo’s police chief warned that people were walking out of the town’s two Walgreens stores and selling their drugs on the spot, crushing and snorting them, or — still in the pharmacy’s parking lot — injecting them.
Why Pharmacies are LIABLE
In Fort Pierce, a Walgreens pharmacist accidentally provided an extra 120 oxycodone pills to a customer. When the druggist called to ask that the man return the pills, the customer’s girlfriend bluntly responded that he was an addict, that he sold oxycodone and the 120 pills were “a pot of gold,” DEA records show.
That was in September. The same man came back to the same Walgreens in December and January with a prescription in hand, and the pharmacy filled his prescriptions every time.
‘Wild West of Oxycodone Prescribing’
Cincinnati-based Masters Pharmaceuticals Inc. was a middling-sized drug distributor selling oxycodone to Florida pharmacies.
It sold to other customers in other states. But mostly, it sold to Florida: Oxycodone made up more than 60 percent of its drug sales in 2009 and 2010, according to federal records. Of its top 55 oxycodone customers, 44 were in Florida.
Company CEO Dennis Smith worried that the Florida-bound oxycodone was getting in the wrong hands. A trip to Broward did nothing to ease his mind. “It was,” he later testified, “the Wild West of oxycodone prescribing.”
Bus and park benches touted pain clinics. When Smith picked up and thumbed through City Beat, a free magazine, he found pages of ads for pain clinics. “It would show young people sitting around a pool and it named the pain clinic and say (sic) ‘we dispense on site,’ and that really hit home hard.”
Smith stopped selling to pain clinics. But the company continued to shovel millions of oxycodone pills to Florida pharmacies. Masters executives figured the pharmacies would keep an eye out for excessive prescriptions written by pill mill doctors. But not all pharmacies were worrying about doctors at pain clinics, many pharmacies were courting the pill mills prescribers.
A Lake Worth Family Pharmacy
In 2009, the small pharmacy off Lucerne Avenue in Lake Worth had a history. It had been in business for 43 years. The owner and head pharmacist had been there for 32. It had shaded parking and a downtown location, a stone’s throw from the City Hall Annex.
When a Masters inspector visited, he was alarmed to find Tru-Valu Drugs bustling with a long line of young, thin, tattooed customers arriving in groups of 10 to pick up pills. There were signs in the pharmacy warning of limits on the number of oxycodone pills handed out. Even Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, an oxycodone manufacturer, was worried about the volume of its pill sales there.
Of the 300,000 doses of all drugs the small pharmacy dispensed in December 2008, 192,000 were for oxycodone 30 mg, the dosage preferred by traffickers and users alike.
The huge oxycodone volume was no accident. The owner and head pharmacist, unidentified in DEA records, told a Masters inspector that the pharmacy “has pushed for this (narcotic) business with many of the area pain doctors.”
And, despite the torrent of oxycodone going out the door, the pharmacy owner expressed frustration that drug distributors were limiting the amount of narcotics they would sell to his now-closed pharmacy.
Ohio to Florida and Back
Pharmacy after pharmacy benefited from the combination of Masters’ Ohio oxycodone business and Florida’s unregulated pill mills.
In Englewood, north of Fort Myers, the pharmacy owner filled prescriptions for six pain clinics — including clinics an hour’s drive away. A Masters inspector found cars from Tennessee and Kentucky in the parking lot and young men leaving the pharmacy carrying large trash bags.
Superior Pharmacy not only filled oxycodone prescriptions for pain clinics, it shared waiting room space with a pain clinic in a Temple Terrace strip mall outside Tampa. Neither Masters nor Superior had so much as Googled the background of pain clinic doctors writing those prescriptions, the DEA later said.
Had they done so, the DEA dryly noted, they “would likely have come across a press release” announcing one of the doctors had been arrested and charged with trafficking in prescription drugs.
Hundreds of thousands of oxycodone pills were sent from Ohio distributors to Florida pharmacies. Unknown thousands of pills headed right back up to Ohio.
When Ohio police burst into Christopher Thompson’s home outside Columbus, they found an assault rifle, $80,000 in cash and oxycodone from his Florida deals. A construction worker whose own pill habit started at age 14, Thompson oversaw a ring of 15 Ohio buyers who traveled to Florida to pick up oxycodone to resell in Central Ohio.
Two hours to the west in Martin’s Ferry, David L. Kidd orchestrated a ring of buyers traveling to West Palm Beach and Central Florida to pick up oxycodone for resale on the streets of eastern Ohio and West Virginia.
Doctors and pharmacies from Florida were complicit with Kidd’s ring in fueling Ohio’s opioid epidemic, wrote the U.S. attorney for West Virginia after Kidd’s 2011 arrest: “The steady flow of pain pills into the Ohio Valley from Florida must stop.”
Driving To Pick Up Death By Rx
With more drugs came more deaths, in January 2010, say police, Fort Lauderdale pathologist Dr. Lynn Averill started a seven-month oxycodone shopping spree, buying 437,880 oxycodone pills from drug distributors.
The same month, Matthew Koutouzis drove from Toms River, N.J., to see Averill in her Broward County pain clinic. The 26-year-old collected prescriptions for 390 pills and overdosed two days later. Brian Moore traveled 13 hours from his Laurel County, Ky., home to see Averill. He left with prescriptions for 600 pills and also overdosed within 48 hours.
Kenneth Hammond didn’t make it back to his Knoxville, Tenn., home. He had a seizure after picking up prescriptions for 540 pills and died in an Ocala gas station parking lot.
Keith Konkol didn’t make it back to Tennessee, either. His body was dumped on the side of a remote South Carolina road after he overdosed in the back seat of a car the same day of his clinic visit. He had collected eight prescriptions totaling 720 doses of oxycodone, methadone, Soma and Xanax. Konkol had every reason to believe he would get those prescriptions: In three previous visits to the Plantation clinic, he had picked up prescriptions for 1,890 pills.
An estimated 60 percent of her patients were from out of state, a former medical assistant told the DEA. In 2015, Averill pleaded not guilty to eight manslaughter charges. She is awaiting trial in Broward County. Averill was just one doctor at just one clinic. In 2010, the year Averill’s patients overdosed, Florida received applications to open 1,026 more pain clinics.
An online message board advising drug users summed it up: “Just go anywhere in South Florida and look for a ‘pain management clinic.’ It shouldn’t be too hard; you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one.” Complain about anything from a back injury to a hangnail, it advised, “and they’ll set you right up.”
By this time, Kentucky had reined in its pill mills. It didn’t matter, Ohio, Delaware, North Carolina, Connecticut acted as well, but other state’s efforts didn’t matter either, Florida continued ignoring the pill mills and rogue doctors feeding the nation’s oxycodone habit, the pills flowed.
“There were folks down there, where if I had an opportunity to, get my hands around their throat, I would have wrung their neck,” said Huntington Mayor Steve Williams. On Florida’s inaction he stated, “There was total evidence as to what was happening. It lays at the foot, in my opinion, of the public officials there that allowed it to continue on.”
Governor Jeb Bush Backed A Solution
One of the first dinners Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hosted after moving into the governor’s mansion in 1999 was a small one. Among those sitting at the table with Bush were Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, state Sen. Locke Burt and James McDonough, who would become the state’s hard-nosed drug czar. There was an urgent topic on the agenda that night: the explosion of prescription painkillers. For the state’s first family, it may have been personal. Bush had talked publicly about one of his children’s struggle with addiction.
By the time the meal ended, all had agreed on the need for establishing a prescription drug monitoring program that would collect information and track prescriptions written for controlled substances, such as oxycodone.
Absent a prescription drug monitoring database, there was no way to know whether someone was “doctor shopping,” going from doctor to doctor, getting more and more prescriptions to feed their habit.
And there was no way to know whether a doctor was overprescribing, key to pinpointing whether a pill mill was operating, and where. Similar databases had been adopted by more than a dozen states. It was being described as a “silver bullet” to curb overprescribing. Soon enough, $2 million to get the database up and running would be on the table — but it came with a catch.
Florida Attorney General Misfires Against Purdue
In 2001, OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma was fending off early criticism of its blockbuster painkiller. At issue was whether Purdue’s aggressive marketing campaign had misled doctors and patients alike. Purdue and three top executives later pleaded guilty to federal charges of illegally marketing the drug. Far from being safe and non-addictive, OxyContin carried the same addiction risk as morphine, and was every bit as potent.
But that was six years away. In 2001, towns in Maine reported an alarming uptick in crime tied to OxyContin. The first of several congressional hearings was ramping up. Critics and parents who lost children were piling on. Reporters were starting to write stories.
In November, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth appeared poised to take on the company. Calling OxyContin street sales “a major threat to public health,” Butterworth told a state Board of Medicine committee that Purdue should consider temporarily taking the drug off the market. It wasn’t only traffickers concerning Butterworth. It was the sales pitch.
In late 2001, Butterworth called a young assistant attorney general into his office and gave him a magazine article on OxyContin and an assignment: Look into Purdue marketing. Former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. The young lawyer, now-Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, said he knew nothing about OxyContin. But he didn’t like what he read.
During the yearlong inquiry, 589 Floridians died after taking oxycodone. Nothing criminal was found, Aronberg later said. Instead, Butterworth and Purdue struck a settlement. As part of a $2 million deal, Purdue would pay to establish a prescription monitoring database, the same silver bullet sought by Bush. After Florida’s computerized system was up and running, the same system would be free to any other state. The entire country, not just Florida, would benefit.
It could have been a groundbreaking deal. There was one catch. State lawmakers had to vote to create the prescription monitoring program by 2004, or Purdue would keep its money.
Marco Rubio Kills The Anti-Oxy Rx Bill
A political gight killed the program. “And there was one person who was responsible,” said former state Sen. Burt, now an Ormond Beach insurance executive. “And it was Marco Rubio.”
A rising state lawmaker in 2002, now-U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had the clout to make or break the legislation. He had been one of two state House majority whips and was on the fast track to becoming House speaker.
Rubio didn’t kill the 2002 bill out of opposition to prescription monitoring—it was politics “as usual” yet nobody blamed Rubio for the resulting opioid crisis that seems to have started in his political backyard and flourished beyond belief..
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was a leader in the Florida House in 2002 when he blocked a vote on prescription monitoring. That year, Rubio favored a bill changing the Miami-Dade County charter, which failed to pass because of a single “no” vote in the Senate. Burt cast the vote.
Angered by what he saw as Burt’s betrayal, Rubio killed the prescription drug monitoring bill. “When I found out he broke his word, it made the choice easy,” Rubio told The Miami Herald.
It’s not certain that the full Legislature would have passed the bill had it made it to a floor vote. Rubio was the first, not the last, in a line of state legislative leaders over years who would refuse to seriously consider the bill. Most cited privacy concerns.
But prescription monitoring databases in Florida and other states free to use Florida’s model would have pinpointed rogue doctors, would-be pill mills and doctor-shoppers across the country, just as all three were beginning to converge. In doing so, it could have curbed a national opioid epidemic when it was just an emerging problem, not the monster it would become.
Only weeks after the 2002 bill was killed, Bush suppressed a sob as he discussed his daughter’s arrest for forging a prescription. Court-ordered to drug treatment and then briefly to jail, Noelle Bush survived her pill addiction. The 2004 deadline for greenlighting a monitoring system passed. So did Purdue’s million-dollar obligation to pay for it.
Between 2002, the year Rubio killed the database that could have identified doctor-shoppers, and late 2011, when the database finally came online, more than 20,800 Floridians died after taking prescription opioids, including OxyContin, annual Florida Medical Examiners’ reports show. “Not getting that bill through the Legislature resulted in Florida becoming the pill mill capital of the United States,” said Burt.
“There was heartache for thousands of families beyond measure and it didn’t have to happen.”
Florida Officials Were Told Of The Oxy Express
The East Kentucky hills and valleys of Greenup County suit Keith Cooper, a long-haired undercover cop-turned-sheriff: “It’s a backwater. I tell people all the time I am a hick sheriff from a hick location, and by 2011, the rural county and its sheriff had big city problems.
Greenup is near the stretch of interstate highways that provided drug traffickers and users with a straight shot to Palm Beach and Broward pill mills. It’s less than an hour’s ride to Huntington Tri-State Airport, where a $27 flight to Fort Lauderdale was a popular draw for dealers hoping to stock up.
Arrests for Florida pills soon eclipsed local arrests for pot.
“When we locked ’em up, we take all their pill bottles and all their paperwork, and we found maps to the doctors offices and everything,” recalled Cooper.
“I called the (Florida) medical board and gave them a big list of doctors,” Cooper said. He called the state pharmacy board, too. He got no response.
“So then I called the Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office. I was calling them all, the whole state. Of course, I was talking to the state police the entire time. “I told them, all of the profits were down there. And all of the pain’s up here.” Nothing happened. Florida’s oxycodone pipeline continued to flow.
On the other side of the law in Greenup, Mikey Frazier was banking on it.
The Oxy Express
Frazier was on a scholarship to play baseball at his junior college in Chicago when he suffered a torn rotator cuff. Doctors prescribed Percocet, a pill containing oxycodone, in 2002. When doctors cut him off, he bought it on the street. In 2006, he moved to OxyContin, nearly pure oxycodone. In 2007, he gave his friends money to go to Florida and bring him back pills.
“My buddy had a minivan and he would actually go down one week and take two to three people with him, and then the following week I’d go,” said Frazier. He still remembers the route: “I’d take 64 East to 77 South to 95 South. And it’s just a straight shot.”
Others followed suit. “What got everyone started was because the doctors around here won’t write a strong enough prescription,” he recalled. OxyContin and generic oxycodone still could be had — just not in Kentucky, which had a prescription drug monitoring database.
In Florida, “there was none of that … stuff that they check and find out what doctor you’ve been to,” said Frazier.
“And one person does it, and then they tell a friend, and then they go do it, and that’s how it all really got started here.”
MEDICAID-MEDICAIRE PAID MILLIONS FOR OXY
Tallahassee wasn’t just ignoring the epidemic, It was financing it.
Before her office was raided by law enforcement in December 2001, Asuncion M. Luyao’s patients would wait in a line in the rain to get prescriptions from the Port St. Lucie internist and acupuncturist. She was one of the most prolific prescribers of OxyContin in the state.
And hundreds of thousands of those pills were being paid for by Medicaid, Florida’s taxpayer-financed health program for the state’s poorest and sickest citizens. Between 1999 and 2001, Medicaid shelled out $935,634 for OxyContin prescriptions written by Luyao. That was just OxyContin. Luyao was prescribing an array of addictive drugs. In the 12 months leading up to the clinic raid, Medicaid paid roughly $1 million for 7,000 prescriptions, only about 17 percent of them for OxyContin.
Nor did the raid slow her down. Between the raid and her arrest on trafficking charges four months later, Luyao wrote another 282 OxyContin prescriptions billed to Medicaid. She was not an outlier. In 24 months, taxpayers footed the bill for more than 49 million doses of pills containing oxycodone, even though there were only 1.36 million Medicaid patients. Half were children.
The sheer volume of pills might have been a tipoff that the drugs were not all intended for legitimate use. So were arrest reports dating to 2001. One man had used his 7-year-old son’s Medicaid number to doctor-shop for OxyContin. A Miramar pharmacist who billed Medicaid $3.7 million for OxyContin pills was charged with paying Medicaid patients $150 each to use their IDs.
Medicaid paid for more than $300,000 to fill Dr. James Graves’ OxyContin prescriptions. The Florida Panhandle physician was the first doctor in the nation convicted of killing patients by overprescribing OxyContin.
Addiction risk for people taking high doses of oxycodone begins climbing after just three days, a recent study concluded. And most people on Florida Medicaid getting oxycodone prescriptions in 2011 were getting much more than a few days worth. They were getting an average of nine months worth of pills, state officials said.
- Pill mill doctors prescribed 1 million of those pills:
- Doctors working for the George twins’ trafficking empire prescribed at least 102,081 oxycodone pills billed to Medicaid before the ring collapsed in 2010.
- Working out of a Delray Beach pain clinic founded by a convicted drug smuggler, Zvi Harry Perper, son of the Broward County medical examiner, was arrested on trafficking charges, but not before he wrote prescriptions to Medicaid patients for 115,977 doses of oxycodone in 90 days.
- In Lake Worth, Cesar Deleon was arrestedas part of a DEA pill mill sweep and charged with 55 counts of illegally distributing drugs. Deleon wrote orders for 20,302 oxycodone pills for Medicaid patients.
- Miami internist Dr. Selwyn Carrington authorized 32,411 doses of oxycodone for Medicaid patients in just two years. He was busted for signing his name to hundreds of prescriptions.
Further, Florida wasn’t in any hurry to stop doctors linked to pill mills.
Carrington was arrested for overprescribing in March 2011. The state’s emergency order to suspend his license was signed months after he had pleaded guilty in 2012.
Perper was busted at a Delray Beach pill mill operated by a former felon in 2011. The state did not act against his license until 2014.
Joseph M. Hernandez was writing prescriptions from his car, a veritable pill mill on wheels, when he was busted in February 2010 on one count of trafficking in oxycodone.
.Florida’s Department of Health didn’t file paperwork to restrict his license for almost 18 months.
During that time, Hernandez wrote oxycodone prescriptions for Medicaid patients totaling 258,940 doses representing a taxpayer-footed bill of $130,165.
Purdue Pharma’s Profits Before Patients Creed
Kelly Skidmore is exactly the type of person Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin marketing was intended to reach: Diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, the former state legislator’s struggle with chronic pain began at age 4.
Skidmore was wary of opioid painkillers, though, one reason her willingness in 2009 to work with Purdue was surprising. But she did it to get Florida’s dormant drug monitoring database up and running.
Then a state representative in a district straddling Palm Beach and Broward counties, Skidmore recalled that, “They came to me and said, ‘Could you help get it across the finish line?’ ”
OxyContin and prescription opioids, a serious problem in 2002, had evolved into a full-blown crisis in the ensuing seven years. Broward alone had more pain clinics than it had McDonald’s. Deaths tied to oxycodone had exploded, up by 263 percent since the prescription monitoring database had first been proposed and killed. Overdoses from prescription opioids were claiming more than seven lives a day.
“By God, if we had had seven dolphins a day dying and washing up on Florida beaches, we would have been appropriating money and solving it,” Skidmore said.
Skidmore believed a database wasn’t going to resolve the underlying addiction crisis. Still, it was a start. Not a silver bullet, but “maybe silver buckshot,” she said. The database law passed with gaping loopholes. No health care professional would have to report opioid prescriptions or check the database before prescribing more, and the state refused to pay for it.
“Just to get that one little piece … took nine years of filing bills and then it had no teeth,” Skidmore said. “And it should have been the easiest piece.”
Where Was The DEA and Everyone Else?
The DEA all but wrung its hands over Florida’s lethal inaction. The agency ticked off a devil’s brew of regulatory loopholes: Florida’s Health Department regulated health care professionals but not pain clinics. The state’s Agency for Health Care Administration regulated pain clinics that accepted insurance, but pill mills were most often on a cash-only basis. And the prescription monitoring database, mired in a vendor dispute, remained stalled.
In early 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott took office, just one drug — oxycodone — was tied to six fatal overdoses a day. Deaths tied to all drugs claimed 25 a day. In the handful of Appalachian states where traffickers were bringing back South Florida pills, it was worse.
Ohio’s death rate for oxycodone and similar opioids had doubled in 24 months, federal records show. Kentucky’s was up by more than 50 percent. And in West Virginia, home to hard-hit Huntington, death rates tied to pill mill drugs such as oxycodone and Opana had climbed by 341 percent.
The DEA formally pinpointed Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties as the nation’s single biggest hub for trafficking pills across state lines. Within weeks of being sworn in, Scott abolished Florida’s Office of Drug Control, eliminating the state drug czar position, announced plans to drive a final stake in the heart of the database and rebuffed Purdue Pharma’s renewed offer to help pay for it.
Scott, a tea party conservative, cited privacy concerns, expressed skepticism the monitoring program would work and raised the possibility taxpayers would be left with a $500,000-a-year bill to operate it.
Attorney General Pam Bondi had also ridden the tea party wave to her position. She shared many of Scott’s conservative convictions. Unlike Scott, the former prosecutor relentlessly lobbied to keep the database alive. Florida’s failure to adopt the drug monitoring database was so out of step with the rest of the country that it began spawning conspiracy theories on both sides of the law.
Everyone knew prescription monitoring was going to kill the pill smuggling business, said a corrupt Florida Highway Patrol trooper as he drove a load of pills out of Florida, according to a federal lawsuit. Talking to the confidential informant in the seat next to him, the trooper speculated someone in Tallahassee must have a piece of the action, “because (Scott) was so adamant about not putting that system in place. Right?”
In Greenup, an infuriated Cooper told a reporter, “In my opinion, (Scott’s) getting money from somewhere. He has to be.” A few days later, recalled Cooper, “A lieutenant with the state police I’d been talking to down there called me, said, ‘Man, just a head’s up: I wouldn’t come to Florida.’” In states on the receiving end of the Florida pill pipeline and among federal officials, Scott’s resistance triggered outrage.
In Kentucky, where as much as 60 percent of the illicit oxycodone in that state flowed from Florida, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo proposed erecting billboards at the Florida line: “Welcome to the Oxy Tourism Capital of the World.”
U.S. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, also from Kentucky, twice wrote Scott. “Canceling Florida’s prescription drug monitoring program is equal to firing firefighters while your house is ablaze,” he wrote.
- Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, asked to meet with Scott. So did DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
Three U.S. senators — New York’s Chuck Schumer, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse — joined Florida’s Bill Nelson in pointing out that the pills weren’t just a Florida problem: There were “serious ramifications for the rest of the country,” wrote Nelson of Scott’s reluctance to crack down. This is a perfect example of how political rhetoric, in-fighting and contrived agendas prevented an early stop to the emerging opioid crisis many years ago.
WHY DIDN’T THE DEA, DRUG DISTRIBUTORS AND PHARMACIES TAKE NOTICE BEFORE THE OPIOID CRISIS SPREAD ACROSS THE COUNTRY LIKE WILDFIRE? WAS IT BECAUSE OF THE BILLIONS IN PROFITS, QUARTERLY BONUSES AND DIVIDENDS? STOCK OPTIONS CASHED IN BY BOARDROOMS AT EVERY OPIOID BIG PHARMA COMPANY? STAY TUNED FOR HOW “PROFITS BEFORE PATIENTS” BECAME THE NORM
(article excerpts and quotes have been taken from publicly available media sources and court records)