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Jay, others ask questions about prescription drug 'gray market'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the eve of a U.S. Senate hearing on prescription drug abuse, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and two other members of Congress asked three licensed pharmacies if they are buying drugs needed to treat cancer and other serious illnesses, then selling them on the "gray market."

Rockefeller, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., believe it become much harder for people to get drugs they need legitimately, when some licensed pharmacies move them back into the gray market, where they are sold at "exorbitant markups."

"These pharmacies seem to be taking advantage of their position and the larger shortage of some drugs to make a profit. If true, it's unacceptable," Rockefeller said in a news release from his office.

"That's why we are following this paper trail and intend to see whether people with life-threatening illnesses had trouble finding the medications they need because of these companies business practices."

The letters were sent to Priority Healthcare and Tri-Med America, LTC Pharmacy and International Pharmaceuticals, and Columbia Med Services and Columbia Medical Distributors.

A husband and wife created Priority Healthcare, a pharmacy in Maryland, and Tri-Med America, a wholesale company in New Jersey, according to Rockefeller, Harkin and Cummings.

"The couple purchased the cancer drug fluorouracil, transferred it to their own wholesaler, and then sold it to another gray market drug company at remarkable price increases, sometimes on the same day as the original purchase," the legislators stated.

The Maryland Board of Pharmacy investigated the transactions and found the couple had "never dispensed any medications" to patients. Neighbors who live near Priority Healthcare reported that "no one is ever there."

Congressional letters to the three pharmacies request answers to their questions by April 11. Letters are being sent to 19 other licensed pharmacies also suspected of making questionable deals.

Rockefeller will chair a hearing about prescription drug abuse before the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health Care at 10 a.m. today<co thurs>.

The hearing will focus on roles Medicare and Medicaid can play to prevent and treat over-prescribing, misuse and addiction to prescription drugs. In recent years, overdoses and deaths from prescription drug painkillers have skyrocketed, Rockefeller said.

Dr. Jeffrey Coben, director of West Virginia University's Injury Control Research Center, will be among the witnesses who will testify today.

Also this week, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., held meetings in Welch and Hamlin to task state substance abuse task forces to share insights into how prescription drugs are being abused locally.

Rahall, a senior member of the Congressional Prescription Drug Abuse Caucus, believes drug abuse endangers "the very foundations of our society - the family, our workplaces and our communities."

Rahall recently sent letters to West Virginia's drug abuse task forces expressing his concerns about children who are not fed meals because "some parents are so strung out" on drugs.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health recently reported more than 13 percent of all children in the country, five years old or younger, have at least one parent with a serious drug or alcohol problem.

"I want to paint, as accurately as possible, the portrait of havoc the prescription epidemic is reaping upon us in Southern West Virginia," Rahall said in a news release. "Whole regional economies are being affected, and that means completely innocent families are being hurt."

Rahall recently introduced the Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in the House, a companion measure to legislation Rockefeller introduced in the Senate. That legislation would promote physician and consumer education, as well as providing federal funding to help states create and maintain prescription drug monitoring programs.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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