Drug enforcement officials are investigating several CVS pharmacies in California over missing prescription painkillers – pills state officials fear may have ended up on the black market.

Investigators in the Sacramento office of the Drug Enforcement Agency are specifically interested in finding out what happened to more than 37,000 tablets of hydrocodone, a narcotic typically sold under brand names like Vicodin and Norco. The pills were reported lost or stolen by four CVS stores in Fairfield, Dixon, Turlock, and Modesto, according to the DEA’s warrant applications.

“Investigators believe there will be numerous record keeping violations related to the dispensation of controlled substances within CVS,” wrote Brian Glaudel, the DEA investigator who requested the four warrants, which were served on the stores last May. “The requested inspection is warranted to protect the public health and safety.”

Hydrocodone pills can sell on the street for $10 each, sometimes even $30 or $40, says Virgina Herold, executive officer of the state’s Board of Pharmacy, an oversight agency. That can be very tempting to unscrupulous employees.

“It’s basically working in a candy store,” Herold says. “In far too many cases, you’ve got someone in that pharmacy that is using his or her access to the drugs to sell them outside the pharmacy. And those drugs are going everywhere. They’re going to our kids. They’re going to people who set up on Craigslist.”

CVS says it is cooperating with the DEA’s review and working to improve its internal audit procedures and drug storage and control measures. It could face up to $29 million in fines as a result of the investigation.

“CVS Caremark takes very seriously the challenge of combating prescription drug abuse and diversion,” the company said in a statement, “and we recognize the important role our pharmacists and technicians play on the front lines of solving this problem.”

Last year more than 3 million pills were reported missing from pharmacies in California, according to data from the Board of Pharmacy. Employee pilferage accounted for 358,000 of those pills. Almost 500,000 were lost in night break ins, and 100,500 in armed robberies, while only 5,500 were due to customer theft, when a customer reaches over the counter and steals the pills. The majority of the pills, more than 1 million, were lost in transit, and there is no explanation for another half a million pills.

DEA Investigating CVS Over 37,000 Missing Pain Pills 12 March,2014April Dembosky

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April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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