Just 15% of Pharmacies Distributed Half of the Opioids in the U.S.

At the height of the opioid epidemic, thousands of small, family-owned pharmacies handled huge volumes of hydrocodone and oxycodone, according to a report from The Washington Post.

These pharmacies are located all over the country and have largely avoided scrutiny for their role in the opioid epidemic, but a recently released analysis of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS), which tracks every opioid pill sold in the U.S., has shifted the focus to these small pharmacies.

The analysis revealed that Shearer Drug, a pharmacy based in Clinton County, Kentucky, purchased nearly 6.8 million pills between 2006 and 2012, amounting to more opioid pills per capita per county than any other U.S. pharmacy. This number of opioids would have been enough to provide 96 pills to each of the county’s roughly 10,000 residents.

The ARCOS system has allowed the DEA to track opioid distribution for the past two decades, but the agency did not regularly analyze the records to identify unusual purchasing patterns by pharmacies. Instead, the DEA allowed drug companies and pharmacies to self-regulate by reporting any suspicious purchases. This policy of self-policing was a contributing factor to the opioid epidemic, according to lawyers for local governments who are suing opioid-producing drug companies.

B. Douglas Hoey, chief executive of the National Community Pharmacists Association, cautioned against judging pharmacies solely on the volume of opioids they handled, stating that “the numbers don’t tell the whole story.” For example, some small pharmacies may be close to surgical centers, causing outsized volumes of opioid prescriptions.

Many of the pharmacies with the highest distribution rates have changed ownership since 2012, and new owners have stated that opioid prescriptions have decreased due to more stringent prescribing habits and increased scrutiny from pharmacists.

Source: The Washington Post, August 12, 2019

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