Walgreens, the nation's largest drug store chain, will pay $80 million in fines to end a DEA probe into allegations it allowed millions of controlled substances, including the highly addictive painkiller oxycodone, to reach the black market.
The settlement is the largest civil penalty paid under the Controlled Substances Act in DEA history, U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer said Tuesday.
Walgreens committed "an unprecedented number" of record-keeping and dispensing violations, Ferrer said.
The DEA in September accused Walgreens of endangering public safety and barred the company from shipping oxycodone and other controlled drugs from its Jupiter, Fla., distribution center. The distribution center was the largest supplier of oxycodone to retail pharmacies in Florida, the DEA said.
"The distribution centers are the first line of defense," Ferrer said.
As part of the settlement, the DEA suspended Walgreens Jupiter distribution center for two years.
The settlement also closes similar investigation in Colorado, Michigan and New York, Ferrer said.
The Centers for Disease Control has called abuse of prescription narcotics, particularly opioid pain relievers, an epidemic.
The DEA had previously revoked controlled substances licenses for two Florida CVS pharmacies. In October, Cardinal Health paid $34 million to settle claims it failed to report suspicious sales of painkillers. Since 2009, federal authorities have charged 51 doctors with controlled substance violations and 192 doctors have voluntarily surrendered their DEA licenses.
The DEA said Walgreens failed to maintain proper controls to ensure it did not dispense drugs to addicts and drug dealers. DEA requires drug distributors to notify the agency of unusually large or frequent retail pharmacy orders for controlled drugs.
Ferrer said Walgreens' failure to re report suspicious orders a "systemic practice that resulted in tens of thousands of violations."
Six of Walgreens' Florida pharmacies ordered more than a million pills a year, the DEA said. In 2011, the average pharmacy in the U.S. ordered 73,000 oxycodone tablets a year. Pharmacists dispensed prescriptions from doctors even when Walgreens computer system flagged the doctors as problematic, Ferrer said.
One pharmacy in Fort Myers went from ordering 95,800 pills in 2009 to 2.2 million pills in 2011, the DEA said. Another pharmacy in Hudson, a town of 34,000 people near Clearwater, purchased 2.2 million pills in 2011, the DEA said.
"Walgreens pharmacists blatantly ignored red flags," Miami field district Special Agent in Charge Mark Trouville said. "National pharmaceutical chains are not exempt from following the law."