DEA suspends license of Michigan wholesaler that sold pain pills to Florida clinics
Federal drug enforcement officials have suspended a pharmaceutical wholesaler's license to sell oxycodone out of its Michigan distribution center, saying most of its largest purchasers were South Floridians engaged in questionable schemes to dispense painkillers.
An investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration found the Harvard Drug Group LLC, based in Livonia near Detroit, distributed more than 13 million doses of oxycodone over two years, federal officials said. DEA spokeman Rich Isaacson said 39 of the 50 pharmacies that bought the largest amounts of the drug were in South Florida.
"The number of doses alone doesn't indicate anything nefarious," Isaacson said. "But by going through the records, we found very large amounts were going to offices where there were only a couple of physicians. That raised eyebrows."
Harvard Group representatives, in a written statement Friday, said they were working with the DEA to resolve the suspension. They said they would help the agency develop ways to identify questionable clinics and doctors.
"We are all aware that criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their methods to illegaly divert and abuse drugs," said Randolph Friedman, chief executive of Harvard Drug Group.
South Florida has grown into a major distribution point for illegal pills. Prescription drug laws are looser in Florida than in other states.
Police and federal agents say unscrupulous "pill mill" pain clinics are thriving in Broward and Palm Beach counties. There are three times as many open today as there were two years ago, police say.
Special Agent Richard Corso, supervisor of DEA's Detroit field division, said several of the Harvard Group's largest volume South Florida customers were giving out painkillers "based on prescriptions that were written for other than legitimate medical purposes."
The wholesaler should have questioned whether the practioners or clinics were acting illegally, considering the large, frequent orders, Corso said.
The DEA's action places conditions on the Harvard Group's sales of other classes of controlled substances, such as hydrocodone, but does not prohibit them.
The agency originally took action to prohibit the wholesaler from handling all controlled substances, about 10 percent of its sales, but modified the order. The action does not affect Harvard's other product lines.
The Harvard Drug Group says it is the nation's eighth-largest distributor of generic drugs, supplying more than 18,000 products to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and private practioners. It has had ties to Florida for more than a decade.
State corporate records and the company website lists an office in Ormond Beach. Friedman and Chief Operating Officer Jay Levine operated a Deerfield Beach-based pharmaceutical company called PDQ Wholesale Inc. for several years, merging it into the Harvard Drug Group in 1997.
Concerned by the growing number of pain clincs, the Florida Legislature this year passed legislation that, among other things, restricts the amount of pills they can prescribe.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Capt. Karl Durr said federal and local law enforcement investigations into the pain clinics continues, as out-of-state residents continue flocking to South Florida to stock up on the addictive and potentially deadly medications. There were 372 suspected overdose deaths in the county last year.
Durr, heading a county multi-agency task force on illegal prescription painkiller sales, said he had not heard of the Harvard Drug Group and that investigators hadn't looked at the distributors who are supplying the pill mills.
"But I do think there is some responsibility on the part of distributors to be aware of what's going on with their customers," he said.
Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report, and material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Diane Lade can be reached at dlade@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4295.