Pills stock photo

An industry group has come to the defense of Ridley’s Family Markets, which is accused in a federal civil enforcement action of filling hundreds of opioid prescriptions under “bright red flag” circumstances at its Morgan pharmacy.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City in December filed suit against Ridley’s Family Markets Inc. and Ridley’s Food Corp. of Twin Falls, Idaho. It asked for an injunction restraining the Morgan pharmacy from violating federal controlled substances laws and demanded civil monetary penalties against the companies.

In an amicus brief filed Wednesday, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores urged Judge Ted Stewart to grant Ridley’s motion to dismiss the case.

The association accused the government of unfairly targeting pharmacies and pharmacists in its efforts to combat deadly abuses of opioid drugs.

It said a series of enforcement actions against pharmacies and pharmacists around the country in the past year wrongly punish them for filling “facially valid” prescriptions written by licensed doctors registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The government’s overreach has potential not only to confuse pharmacists, but to chill their use of professional discretion, threatening patients’ health and well-being,” the association said. “Pharmacists are not authorized by law or prepared by training to supersede physicians’ medical judgment in prescribing controlled substances.”

It added, “The consequences of the government’s legal position fall most heavily on the patients whose prescriptions can needlessly go unfilled. The natural effect of the government’s approach is to create a hesitancy for pharmacists to fill controlled-substance prescriptions ... thereby leaving patients without the medicines they need. This is no hypothetical concern.”

The suit focused on prescriptions for two people, a married couple.

Ridley’s filled 76 prescriptions for 7,355 pills for “Individual A” from June 2017 to February 2019, the suit said.

“Individual B” got 84 prescriptions filled for 8,915 pills in the same period, it said.

Together, the couple received 6,155 carisoprodal muscle relaxer tablets, 4,285 hydrocodone tablets and 4,370 oxycodone tablets, according to the suit.

“Individual B” went to a hospital emergency room in February 2019 “with symptoms of a drug overdose and a pocket full of forged prescriptions for oxycodone,” the suit alleged.

“Individual A” worked for the doctor whose name was on the prescriptions but never was his patient, the suit said.

Ridley’s systematically ignored red flags, the suit contended, such as cash payments, high doses of long duration, family members at the same address, early refills and dangerous drug combinations.

In its dismissal motion filed in March, Ridley’s asserted the suit was an “extraordinary overreach” against the Morgan pharmacy by wrongly suggesting they “should have ignored physician’s orders and substituted their own judgment by refusing to fill facially valid prescriptions that were likely written for patients with chronic pain conditions.”

In response, the government said, “A prescription may raise so many red flags that a pharmacist may not fill the prescription, regardless of what the prescriber may say.”

“Ridley ignored bright red flags that glaringly appeared on the face of the prescriptions,” federal attorneys said. “Most notably, the physician signatures on many of the prescriptions were so obviously forged or stamped that any reasonable pharmacist would have done something to verify their validity. Ridley’s pharmacists did nothing.”

Judge Stewart has yet to rule on Ridley’s dismissal motion. In a related matter, U.S. Magistrate Jared Bennett in Salt Lake on March 11 denied Ridley’s request that he order the case into mediation.

Bennett said mediation must have willing partners, and the government opposes that option.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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