Federal probe looks at volume of hydrocodone sold at Costco pharmacies

Federal narcotics agents discovered last year that a Costco pharmacy in West Sacramento was consistently purchasing more of the painkiller hydrocodone than any other pharmacy in California.

Now, as an offshoot of that finding, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is inspecting the records and premises of other Northern California pharmacies in the Costco chain whose hydrocodone prescriptions are filled by the West Sacramento pharmacy.

Costco Wholesale Corp. is based in Issaquah, Wash., near Seattle.

Federal warrants were issued a week ago clearing the way for DEA agents to conduct administrative inspections and audits of Costco pharmacies in Sacramento, Roseville, Fairfield and Manteca.

Affidavits supporting the agency’s applications for the warrants say the West Sacramento pharmacy is “the highest purchaser (dosage units) for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 in the State of California.”

Based on that information and the fact the four other pharmacies have never been inspected by the DEA, “Investigators believe there will be numerous record keeping violations related to the receipt of controlled substances” found at the four locations, according to the affidavits, signed by Mark Jackson, a DEA diversion investigator in Sacramento.

John Sullivan, Costco’s corporate counsel, said in an email that the company supports the DEA’s efforts to address “the public health problem of the diversion of prescription drugs.” Costco has cooperated with the agency in those efforts, he said, “and will continue to do so.”

The company will likewise “continue to seek to maintain procedures to insure that controlled substances are accounted for and dispensed properly,” Sullivan said.

The drug, normally used to control pain, plays a major role in the national epidemic of prescription drug abuse, according to an Internet fact sheet posted by the DEA. It says hydrocodone is the most frequently prescribed chemical derivative of opium in the United States, and is associated with more abuse and diversion than any of the others.

Brands and generics marketed in this country are combination products. The fact sheet says that examples are hydrocodone and acetaminophen – Vicodin; and hydrocodone and aspirin – Lortab ASA.

It says that, used in doses slightly higher than those prescribed, hydrocodone induces euphoria and sedation and alters the perception of pain. Long-term use in higher amounts can lead to depressed respiration, dependence and addiction, the fact sheet says.

The DEA late last month announced its proposal to shift all hydrocodone combination products from the list of schedule III controlled substances to the schedule II list, based on “substantial evidence of high potential for abuse.” The rescheduling will impose more stringent regulatory requirements on manufacturers, distributors, dispensers such as pharmacies and physicians, and importers and exporters.

In 2011, Jackson says in a affidavit relevant to the the West Sacramento location, that pharmacy purchased almost 5 million hydrocodone dosage units, compared to slightly more than 2 million units purchased by a combined 184 pharmacies in the counties of Amador, El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Solano, Yolo and Yuba.

Comparisons for 2012 and 2013 showed similar results, according to the affidavit.

The West Sacramento pharmacy buys its hydrocodone from a wholesale branch of pharmaceutical giant McKesson Corp., also located in West Sacramento.

A reporter seeking comment at the facility was referred to McKesson’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco. A phone call and email directed to the corporation’s media information staff went unanswered.