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The CliffsNotes Version of How the DEA Failed to Stop a Problematic Drug Distributor
I was in the middle of reporting for Pharma in 2018 when the DEA charged that the nation’s fourth largest drug distributor, Morris & Dickson, had repeatedly failed to flag and report more than 12,000 suspicious orders for opioid painkillers to hospitals and pharmacies over a four-year period. Despite feeding millions of pills to small town pharmacies that sometimes supplied pill mills and churned out fraudulent prescriptions, the company had filed only three suspicious order reports, none of which led to any formal action.
What did the family-owned Morris & Dickson, with $4 billion in annual revenues, do to demonstrate that it was serious about fixing its mishandling of lethal opioid painkiller shipments? It hired Louis Milione, chief of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, the unit responsible for regulating companies like Morris & Dickson when it comes to the sales of addictive prescription drugs. The firm’s president, Paul Dickson Sr., testified that its compliance program was “dang good.”
The year after the DEA first brought the charges against Morris & Dickson, the company agreed to pay $22 million in civil penalties for violating the Controlled Substances Act by continually failing to report suspicious orders of hydrocodone and oxycodone. As I demonstrate repeatedly in Pharma, that is the successful template used by Big Pharma over the decades: once caught doing something wrong, pay a huge fine. That might cut into the profits earned over the years of wrongdoing, but it simply becomes the cost of doing business. Morris & Dickson also agreed to belatedly spend millions in fixing the deficiencies in its “dang good” compliance program so it could spot and report suspicious orders moving forward.
An Administrative Law Judge, however, upset the Morris & Dickson plans to so easily return to business as usual. He ruled in 2019 that the fines and window dressing fixes to its compliance program were not enough. A 159-page ruling concluded the only remedy to Morris & Dickson’s “cavalier disregard” of its opioid drug shipments was for the DEA to strip the firm of its license to ship those drugs. Anything less, wrote the judge, “would communicate to DEA registrants that despite their transgressions, no matter how egregious, they will get a mere slap on the wrist and a second chance so long as they acknowledge their sins and vow to sin no more.”
What did the DEA do?
Three successive DEA administrators did nothing.
Morris & Dickson continued to distribute and profit in opioid painkillers.
That abruptly changed only last week, on May 24, when the AP’s Jim Mustain and Josh Goodman ran a story, “DEA’s Failure To Punish Distributor Blamed In Opioid Crisis Raises Revolving Door Questions.” It highlighted the DEA’s multi-year failure to move against Morris & Dickson and also raised questions about potential conflicts of interest from the revolving door policy between the company and the DEA. Louis Milione, who had gone to work for Morris & Dickson, had rejoined the DEA in 2021 as its principal deputy administrator.
The DEA had no comment. Nor did Milione.
This past Friday, only two days after the AP story shined a spotlight on the DEA’s inaction, the DEA suddenly revoked Morris & Dickson’s license to sell prescription opioids. The DEA shamelessly tried putting part of the blame on COVD for its extraordinary 4-year delay.
The DEA revocation does not become effective for 90 days, giving Morris & Dickson time to negotiate a less onerous settlement. The company issued a statement on Friday, that in part, read: “We remain confident we can achieve an outcome that safeguards the supply chain for all of our healthcare partners and the communities they serve.”
Good continued press coverage is likely the only thing that will prevent the DEA from caving and allowing Morris & Dickson to pay another huge fine so they can continue profiting from the sale of addictive prescription drugs.
Government regulators often have a way of suddenly doing the right thing when a spotlight is on them.