NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A federal prosecutor said Friday that the Justice Department has a taken first-of-its-kind action to temporarily stop two Tennessee pharmacies, their owner and three pharmacists from dispensing opioids and other controlled substances.
Copies of court filings provided by U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran's office say Celina, Tennessee-based Oakley Pharmacy Inc., known as Dale Hollow Pharmacy, and Xpress Pharmacy of Clay County LLC illegally filled thousands of opioid and other prescriptions without legitimate medical purpose. Two people have died and numerous others were hospitalized for overdoses shortly after obtaining drugs from the pharmacies, Cochran's office said.
The filings say Thomas Weir, who owns both pharmacies, oversaw operations and pharmacists Michael Griffith, John Polston and Larry Larkin illegally filed prescriptions, failing in the role pharmacists often play as the "last line of defense before a controlled substance that was prescribed without any legitimate medical purpose is sold to a patient."
"The action supported today by the Drug Enforcement Administration should serve as a warning to those in the pharmacy industry who choose to put profit over customer safety," said a statement from D. Christopher Evans, special agent in charge of DEA's Louisville Field Division. That division covers Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia.
A judge signed an order to keep the pharmacies and four men from dispensing controlled substances and will soon set a hearing to consider a permanent injunction, said Cochran spokesman David Boling.
James Hodge, an Arizona State University law professor specializing in public health law, said similar federal actions have been taken elsewhere, including in Ohio where a district court in October permanently barred a doctor from prescribing opioids or practicing medicine. He also noted a lawsuit this week by Philadelphia's top federal prosecutor to stop a nonprofit from opening a safe injection site to address the city's opioid problem.
He said the Justice Department might be "starting to drop the hammer on some of these opioid-related issues that we have not seen it do up until now."
Calls to the two Tennessee pharmacies went unanswered Friday.
The court filings say the pharmacies filled the illegal prescriptions from at least May 2016 through August 2018 and resulted in "substantial, improper reimbursements" through Medicare.
From 2012 to 2018, Medicare paid the pharmacies more than $2.4 million for controlled substances, including more than $1.7 million for opioids, the filing says.
In January 2016, Weir signed an order with the state pharmacy board that described Dale Hollow's numerous violations of Tennessee pharmacy requirements and placed the pharmacy's license on probation for five years, according to a filing. He signed a separate agreement with the DEA in March 2017 to avoid having the pharmacy's DEA registration number revoked.
The filing also says Weir told DEA agents in June 2018 that "he did not believe there is an opioid problem and that it is media hype."
"Doctors need to be investigated. They are the ones writing prescriptions," Weir told DEA agents, according to the filing. "We just fill them. The pharmacist is not responsible."
Prosecutors said they are seeking to recover unspecified damages and civil penalties in the case.