Prescription drug diversion a growing problem

A pharmacy technician from Old Saybrook who admitted he stole nearly 5,000 painkillers and anti-anxiety pills on the job and sold them to pay his bills was arrested last week by federal authorities.

Two days later, two female office assistants who worked for a New London physician were charged with fraudulently acquiring and distributing prescription medications.

And earlier this year, a physician who practiced in Old Saybrook was charged with 47 felony charges related to the illegal prescription and sale of drugs. Addicts called Scott Houghton "the candy man" because he so readily prescribed the drugs they sought, according to court documents.

The illegal distribution of prescription drugs is a significant problem, and there are signs it is growing worse, according to Connecticut's U.S. Attorney David B. Fein. Last week, he announced the creation of Operation Pharm Team, comprising federal, state and local law enforcement and regulatory authorities, to combat the misuse of prescription drugs.

"Prescription drug diversion and abuse is a significant problem in Connecticut and throughout New England," said Steven W. Derr, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New England division. "As this investigation demonstrates, the DEA and its law enforcement partners do not differentiate between drug traffickers, whether they are on the street corner or behind the counter at the your local pharmacy. We go where the investigation takes us."

Potent opiate-based drugs such as Oxycodone and Fentanyl proved to be powerful tools for pain management as their use became more widespread over the past two decades. Recreational use and addiction to them has been an unfortunate side-effect.

"When these things are being used for what they're prescribed for, they're not typically addictive, because it's short-term," said Warren Rogers, director of pharmacy at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital.

Those who have an addictive personality are at increased risk, he said, and people who use the drugs for chronic pain also can run into trouble.

"There's a euphoric component to these drugs," he said. "You get this feeling of euphoria and people use it as an opportunity to feel good. Then some people get creative and they combine drugs for different types of highs and lows."

Rogers speaks daily or weekly with drug control agents and other regulators, and every consumer prescription is submitted into a central database called the Connecticut Prescription Monitoring and Reporting System, which is available to medical providers, pharmacists and law enforcement authorities.

Despite the sophisticated regulatory system, prescription drugs are still diverted frequently from their intended medical uses. Some people in the medical field get involved in the drug diversion.

Some pill-seekers "doctor shop," or go to multiple places to obtain prescriptions, according to Rogers. Others forge prescriptions. Some people hoard and sell medications they do not need and others steal them from family members.

Occasionally, there is a larger-scale theft, such as a warehouse burglary.

John Gedea, director of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection's drug control division, said people tend to think controlled drugs are safer than street drugs.

"These are all FDA approved, so people tend to think that if it wasn't safe, a doctor wouldn't prescribe it and a pharmacy wouldn't fill it," he said. "There's a degree of safety associated with these drugs, but if you go outside that medical use, they're potentially harmful."

Use by young people

A major concern is the use of prescription medications by adolescents and young adults. The federal investigation into the Old Saybrook pharmacy technician, 20-year-old Kevin Winzer, had stemmed from a distraught mother's phone call to the local CVS. She said she had found her daughter with some prescription medications, and that the daughter admitted buying them from Winzer.

Confronted by investigators, Winzer admitted to pilfering nearly 5,000 painkillers and anti-anxiety medications. He said he started pocketing a few pills at a time at the end of his shift, then began taking entire bottles. He charged $3-$4 a pill for Vicodin, $2-$3 a pill for Xanax, $5 for Valium and $3 for Klonipin. Selling the drugs helped pay his bills, Winzer said. He ingested stolen pills himself, because he suffered from pain in his knee and shoulder and occasional anxiety.

Last week, federal agents charged Linda McDougal, 51, of East Lyme, and Susan Turitto, 53, of North Stonington, former office assistants for a New London surgeon, with fraudulently acquiring and distributing prescription medications.

McDougal worked for the doctor from 2005 to 2009. She is accused of obtaining the medications for herself and relatives by calling in prescriptions to pharmacies and ordering bulk amounts of the controlled substances delivered to the doctor's office, according to court documents.

The authorities allege that McDougal fraudulently obtained hundreds of tablets of hydrocodone/acetaminophen (sold under the brand name Vicodin), alprazolam (sold as Xanax) and diazepam (sold as Valium). In addition to the charges of illegal distribution and acquisition of the drugs, she also is charged with making a false statement related to a health care matter.

When she left the position, McDougal recommended her friend, Turitto, who was hired by the doctor and who also fraudulently obtained medications, according to court documents. Turitto is charged with illegally acquiring and distributing controlled substances and defrauding a health care benefit program. Her husband, Craig Levine, also is charged with acquiring the fraudulent prescriptions and defrauding the health care benefit program.

Houghton, the physician who had practiced in Old Saybrook and Westbrook, has agreed to the voluntary suspension of his medical license while his criminal case is pending in state Superior Court in Middletown. He has notified his patients he is no longer in practice.

The warrant for his arrest says Houghton sometimes didn't require patients to enter an examining room during their office visits. He would meet them in the hallway and hand them their prescriptions. If they ran out of drugs before their next scheduled visit, he would simply write them another prescription. Rarely would he require drug-addicted patients to prove they were undergoing the required counseling, and most of the time he didn't even take their blood pressure or pulse, according to the warrant.

The Department of Consumer Protection, working with local, state and federal law authorities, built its case against Houghton by interviewing his former medical partners, employees and patients. Houghton, who lives in Madison, is free on $250,000 bond. His next court date is Nov. 1.

Controlled substances

What is a controlled substance?
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency classifies drugs according to their potential for abuse and their accepted medical uses.

Schedule I
Drugs or other substances that have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in the United States and have a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.
Examples: Heroin, Marijuana, Ecstacy, GBH

Schedule II
Drugs or other substances that have a high potential for abuse, have an accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, or have an accepted medical use with severe restrictions; abuse may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Examples: Cocaine, Amphetamines, Morphine, Oxycodone

Schedule III
Drugs or other substances that have a potential for abuse less than Schedule I or II and have an accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; abuse may lead to moderate or low physical and high psychological dependence.
Examples: Anabolic Steroids, Ketamine, Hydrocodone/Codeine

Schedule IV
Drugs or other substances that have a low potential for abuse relative to those listed in Schedule III and have an accepted medical use in the United States; abuse may lead to limited physical or psychological dependence compared with those in schedule III.
Examples: Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium).

Schedule V
The drug or other substance has a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule IV and have a medically accepted medical use in the United States; abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances.
Examples: Cough suppressants containing small amounts of codeine; anticonvulsants and anti-diarrheals.

Source: U.S. DEA


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