George IndestBy George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

The “Opioid Crisis” in the U.S.

We all know that there is an “opioid crisis” in the U.S. It is probably prevalent in every state. In Florida we have been suffering under it for the past ten to fifteen years. So it is nothing new to Florida. Government regulators including, but not limited to the Florida Department of Health (DOH), Florida Attorney General (AG), different State’s Attorneys’ (prosecutors) offices, multi-jurisdictional task forces, local law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), along with federal prosecutors, have been involved in ongoing efforts in Florida for the past fifteen years or so, to shut down “pill mills” and attempt to eliminate the “opioid crisis.” Florida was, unfortunately, leading this trend.

The “Opioid Crisis;” Nothing New in Florida.

During this same period of time, my firm and I have been involved in defending physicians and pharmacists in criminal, civil, and administrative actions seeking to prosecute them, revoke their licenses, revoke their DEA registrations, terminate them from Medicaid participation, levy fines on them and other punitive actions. Florida was also, unfortunately, leading this trend.

So our opinions and comments in this blog, Part 1, and its Part 2, are informed by long years of experience with something that is old news in Florida, but may be new news in other states.

Alaska Sends out its Warning to Pharmacists to Keep Filling Prescriptions for Opioids.

On January 23, 2019, the Chairman of the Alaska Board of Pharmacy sent out an open letter to Alaska pharmacists, discussing the negative effect on patient health that has arisen in response to the fact that many pharmacists have stopped filling prescriptions for opioids. From its tone, it warns pharmacists to keep filling such prescriptions under threat of possible disciplinary action against their licenses, at least that is my interpretation of it. Here is a copy you can read for yourself, click here.

The two-page letter begins by stating:

The [Alaska] Board of Pharmacy has had an influx of communication concerning patients not able to get controlled substance prescriptions filled for various reasons, even when signs of forgery or fraudulence were not presented.

The letter continues stating:

As a professional reminder, failing to practice pharmacy using reasonable knowledge, skill, competence, and safety for the public may result in disciplinary actions under Alaska statute and regulation. These laws are: AS [Alaska Statutes] 08.80.261 DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS.

It then continues, quoting and citing other statutes and administrative codes under which a pharmacist could be charged for refusing to fill an opioid prescription for a patient.

Chilling? Mixed Signals? You be the Judge!

The problem I have is where is the state board of pharmacy (in any state, not just Alaska), when the DEA comes in to the pharmacy with its search warrants and arrest warrants? Where is the state board of pharmacy when the raid by local police/sheriff/multi-jurisdictional task force comes into the pharmacy? Where is the state board of pharmacy when the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicts and prosecutes the pharmacist? Where is the state board of pharmacy when the DEA issues its Order to Show Cause (OTSC) why the pharmacy’s or pharmacist’s DEA registration should not be revoked.

The state board of pharmacy is usually the one providing the expert witnesses to testify against the pharmacist or pharmacy, that’s where. The state board of pharmacy is standing by ready to take disciplinary action against the pharmacist or pharmacy, after the other government agencies get finished.

If pharmacists and pharmacies are refusing to fill prescriptions for opioids, which is something that I advise my clients to do, if they can afford to do so, then that is a smart move, until state agencies, including the state boards of pharmacy, take action to help them out of this predicament. The pharmacists are caught on the horns of a dilemma: face federal and state criminal prosecutions and actions by the DEA for filling opioid prescriptions; or face possible administrative actions by the state board of pharmacy for not filling opioid prescriptions. My advice is to choose the latter as it is much easier to defend a state administrative action, especially if you are not trying to do so from a federal prison somewhere.

The cost of defending a DEA action to revoke a DEA registration is prohibitive if done correctly, even if the pharmacist is completely innocent of any wrongdoing. The goal of these proceedings, despite the innocence of the pharmacist or pharmacy, is to put them out of business, and it almost always succeeds! Click here to read one of my prior blogs about DEA investigations of health care professionals.

To read my additional opinions on the types of actions that can be taken by states and state agencies to address the issues which the Alaska Board letter attempts to address, please see Part 2 of this blog. To read more on pill mill cases in the state of Florida, click here.

To learn more on administrative and informal hearings before the Florida Board of Pharmacy, click here to read one of my prior blogs.

Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced in Representing Pharmacies and Pharmacists.

The Health Law Firm represents pharmacists and pharmacies in DEA, DOH and FDA investigations, qui tam and whistleblower cases, regulatory matters, licensing issues, litigation, administrative hearings, inspections and audits. The Firm also represents both plaintiffs (whistle blowers or relators) and defendants in False Claims Act (whistle blower or qui tam) cases. The firm’s attorneys include those who are board certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law as well as licensed health professionals who are also attorneys.

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About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law is an attorney with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.

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