- In the largest settlement of its kind involving a hospital, Effingham Health System has agreed to pay the U.S. $4.1 million for alleged large-scale diversion of opioids, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
- The DEA launched the investigation in 2017 after receiving reports of missing tablets and possible diversion at the Springfield, Georgia-based health system. The inquiry turned up tens of thousands of missing oxycodone 30 mg tablets spanning back more than four years.
- Effiingham failed to notify authorities of the suspected diversion within the time proscribed by federal law, the DEA said.
In a statement Wednesday, Effingham Health System acknowledged “vulnerabilities in our prior record keeping and reporting systems” and said it has since overhauled its pharmacy operations to adhere to best practices, including implementing “electronic inventory systems to protect the integrity of orders, track inventory and dispense medications.”
The Wednesday notice said Effingham cooperated with DEA officials during the investigation and subsequent plan to identify and correct deficiencies in its pharmacy system.
“Hospitals put lives at risk when they fail to maintain accurate recordkeeping of their inventory,” Robert Murphy, the special agent in charge of the DEA Atlanta Division, said in a statement. “Such careless behavior allows for substances to be diverted and sold on the black market with no true measure of accountability. This record-setting civil penalty is a proactive step that DEA Diversion and our partners in the U.S. Attorney’s Office can take to discourage other healthcare providers from engaging in such reckless behavior.”
The case underscores that there can be tangible costs to providers in the opioid epidemic, which claims more than an estimated 100 lives a day to overdoses.
In 2016, two Emory University hospital employees were fired for illegally diverting more than a million doses of controlled substances, in a scheme that lasted nearly five years. The diverted drugs included anxiety medication alprazolam, sold under the brand name Xanax, and pain meds codeine and hydrocodone.
A consent order between the hospital and the Georgia Board of Pharmacy fined the hospital $200,000 and put its pharmacy license on probation for three years. The issue was also reported to the DEA.
Last summer, HHS charged 400 defendants for false billing schemes totaling $1.3 billion. The takedown included nearly 300 health professionals who were served exclusion notices for conduct related to opioid diversion and abuse.
Among the schemes was a Texas doctor who fraudulently billed Medicare and was paid $1.2 million while also overprescribing narcotics.
The government has also gone after pharmaceutical companies in its efforts to address the opioid crisis. In a 2017 case, Mallinckrodt, one of the largest makers of generic oxycodone, agreed to pay $35 million to settle charges it failed to report suspicious orders of prescription drugs and violated recordkeeping requirements.