Drug samples sold for profit
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Today's independent pharmacist is under enormous pressure from corporate chains like Wal-Mart, Walgreen's and Target.
Yet less-than-scrupulous pharmacists can access a black market of stolen samples of prescription drugs, which pharmaceutical companies send to doctors as thinly disguised marketing tools.
That's what authorities say a Paterson pharmacy owner named William Stracher did.
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said Stracher, a Vermont resident who owns Sussman Drugs, spent the past 10 years buying and reselling stolen drug samples such as Lipitor, Nexium and Effexor XR. He was arrested on Tuesday.
By paying a fraction of the actual cost of prescription drugs, a pharmacist could keep his or her business afloat without fear of competition. At least until the owner is caught.
The 65-year-old Stracher, who was charged with four counts of distributing illegally obtained prescription drugs, could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on each charge. He is being held in the Bergen County Jail on S125,000 bail.
Luther Manning, a sales representative for Wyeth Pharmaceutical Co., also was arrested Tuesday on charges that he stole and sold samples of Effexor XR, an antidepressant, on the black market. Wyeth maintains a storage facility in Hasbrouck Heights, from which "not for resale samples" were stolen.
Local pharmacists reacted to the two arrests by saying probably only one impulse motivates a pharmacist who risks everything to sell illegal drugs.
"Greed," said John Spenillo, pharmacist and owner of Melcon's Pharmacy in Hawthorne.
Certainly the Bergen County prosecutor's description of Stracher's illegal gains fits that impression. Molinelli said Stracher lived a lavish lifestyle, making millions and investing the cash in an impressive collection of baseball memorabilia.
When asked about those who might steal to keep their business afloat, some independent pharmacists said they would not be surprised if it occasionally happens.
"I guess it's not beyond the realm of possibility," said Randal Meglio, a pharmacist with Mort Jacobs Pharmacy in Paterson.
Independent pharmacy owners earn 90 percent of their revenue from filling prescriptions, according to a spokeswoman for the National Community Pharmacists Association, or NCPA.
Yet earning that money is a struggle when insurance companies stagger repayments and corporate chains receive purchasing deals not available to small pharmacies.
"It's a tough business to be in," Spenillo said. "We get paid the same price. We should able to buy for the same price."
Reselling prescription drug samples is illegal under the federal Prescription Drug Marketing Act of 1987, yet many people are caught each year violating the law.
Molinelli, who did not immediately return cell phone messages on Wednesday, has said he expects additional arrests will be made from the investigation, which was jointly conducted with the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services.
Lisa Camooso Miller, spokeswoman for the NCPA, said the overwhelming majority of pharmacists are honest people and have reputations beyond reproach. "These are small business owners fighting like mad every day to serve their community," she said.
Yet Lyle Shaw, a pharmacist with Farmacias del Pueblo II in Paterson, said he frequently read reports from the state Board of Pharmacy about pharmacists who lose their licenses for conducting illegal pharmaceutical sales, as well as letters warning about prescription forgery.
"Never a dull moment in the pharmacy," Shaw said