On November 10, 2016, the DEA issued its final decision and order in the case against Jones Total Health Care Pharmacy, L.L.C. (“Jones Pharmacy”) and SND Health Care L.L.C. (“SND”). The
Administrator ordered that the DEA deny Jones Pharmacy’s registration renewal application and also deny SND’s pending registration application. These orders were consistent with the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) recommendations, which were largely based on circumstantial evidence that Jones Pharmacy ignored “red flags” that prescriptions it dispensed were not for a “legitimate medical purpose.” The Administrator also agreed with the ALJ’s determination that the “unlawful” dispensing practices at Jones Pharmacy should impact SND’s application request because the two pharmacies were “one integrated enterprise” under common individual ownership and operation.

DEA Red Flags Test

The ALJ’s recommendations in this case were largely based on evidence that Jones Pharmacy failed in its responsibility to address “red flags” based on the DEA’s three-part test set forth in Holiday CVS, LLC d/b/a CVS Pharmacy Nos. 219 and 5195.

Under the Holiday CVS “red flags” test, the DEA must prove that:

  1. The registrant dispensed a controlled substance;
  2. A red flag was or should have been recognized at or before the time the controlled substance was dispensed; and
  3. The question created by the red flag was not resolved conclusively prior to the dispensing of the controlled substances.

The Administrator agreed with the ALJ’s determination that Jones Pharmacy knew or should have known that it was dispensing controlled substances that were not for a legitimate medical purpose in violation of 21 C.F.R. § 1306.04 based on the following red flags: (1) patients traveled long distances for filling prescriptions, often from out of state; (2) prescriptions were filled for common “cocktail medications,” (i.e., short term pain relief); (3) prescriptions were issued by doctors prescribing outside their scope of practice; (4) prescriptions were dispensed on the same day to patients with the same out-of-state address for the same controlled substance; and (5) such prescriptions dispensed were paid for in cash.

The ALJ’s initial analysis focused on whether the red flags were “resolved” prior to dispensing the controlled substances in question. Based on expert testimony that the prescriptions at issue presented multiple red flags that were “unresolvable” on their face, and Jones Pharmacy’s failure to rebut this presumption, the ALJ determined that Jones Pharmacy failed to resolve the red flags. The ALJ also decided that because Jones Pharmacy did not “unequivocally” accept responsibility for the dispensing of prescriptions with red flags present, the ALJ would not consider the “remedial efforts” that Jones Pharmacy took. The Administrator agreed.

Key Takeaways: Red Flags Analysis

In adopting the ALJ’s conclusions that Jones Pharmacy knew or should have known of red flags of drug diversion, the Administrator made the following key observations that registrants should keep in mind when conducting a red flags analysis:

  • Circumstantial evidence, just like in Holiday CVS, can be enough to prove that a registrant ignored red flags even if no witness testifies that he or she had “personal knowledge” that drugs were being diverted;
  • DEA does not “have the resources to personally brief” every registrant on “red flags” following its discovery of new patterns of drug diversion;
  • Patients frequently traveling long distances from out-of-state and presenting multiple prescriptions for controlled substances, such as oxycodone, and paying in cash creates an “obvious and compelling” level of suspicion that the prescriptions lack a legitimate medical purpose;
  • Certain circumstances should raise “red flags” for a registrant, such as those described above, even prior to the DEA expressly stating in an agency opinion that such circumstances are red flags (i.e., Jones Pharmacy could not rely on the fact that the DEA did not identify cash payments as a “red flag” until its decision in East Main Street Pharmacy on October 27, 2010, for dispensing that occurred at Jones Pharmacy prior to that date);
  • When prices a pharmacy charges for controlled substances far exceed those charged by other pharmacies, the DEA may infer that the pharmacy is charging higher prices due to the fact that it is knowingly supplying the drugs to individuals seeking to abuse or divert controlled substances.

Additionally, this case provides another example that the DEA may view prescriptions with multiple red flags as per se “unresolvable,” consistent with the Administrator’s opinion in Holiday CVS. 77 Fed. Reg. 62,316, 62,317. In such cases, the registrant will be required to present evidence to rebut the presumption that it has failed the third prong of the Holiday CVS red flags test. Finally, this case serves as a reminder that when the DEA disciplines a registrant, it may also choose to take adverse action against another entity that is owned and operated by the same individual owner.