In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began investigating reports that Safeway pharmacies in North Bend, WA, and Wasilla, AK, did not notify the DEA of the loss of tens of thousands of hydrocodone tablets. Safeway did not report the thefts until months after the chain had discovered that its pharmacy employees were responsible for the thefts.
The DOJ investigation grew in scale as it began an investigative review of all Safeway pharmacy practices between 2009 and 2014. That investigation revealed a “widespread practice” at Safeway pharmacies of failing to report theft or loss quickly enough. According to the DOJ, pharmacies are required to report any theft or significant loss to the DEA within one day of discovering the loss.
“As our community struggles with an epidemic of opioid abuse, we call on all participants in drug distribution to carefully monitor their practices to stem the flow of narcotics to those who should not have them,” said U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes in a statement. “Pharmacies have a key role to play in making sure only those with legitimate prescriptions receive these powerful and potentially addictive drugs, including by timely reporting losses of those drugs. Failure to do so hamstrings DEA’s investigative abilities and frustrates some of our best methods at curbing abuse.”
DEA Special Agent in Charge Keith Weis added that, “At this crucial juncture in our efforts to combat abuses of prescription drugs, it is imperative that pharmacies notify DEA immediately when drugs are stolen or missing. A quick response to such reports is one of the best tools DEA has in stopping prescription drug diversion.”
As part of the settlement agreement, Safeway is agreeing to pay $3 million and implement a compliance agreement. As part of that three-year compliance agreement—according to the agreement document signed by Safeway and the DOJ—the chain will create a Department of Pharmaceutical Integrity, whose director will be required to undergo annual training and be a contact point for any further DEA requests. Safeway announced that it will also be closing an in-store pharmacy in Belmont, CA, and will not fill controlled substance prescriptions for four months at the North Bend location.
Safeway also said that neither the DEA nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington has made any claims about ongoing violations. They also said that since 2015 they have “significantly enhanced” their controlled substance monitoring program and compliance procedures.