Pharmacist's theft of $5.6M worth of oxycodone is sure to escalate backlash

Already dealing with a growing backlash from politicians and law enforcement accusing it of recklessly marketing opioids, the pharmaceutical industry now has to face down a report that a hospital pharmacy director for years was walking out with thousands of oxycodone pills. It is a revelation that is sure to add to the growing debate.

New York prosecutors have charged Anthony D'Alessandro, who worked 14 years in the pharmacy at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital, as a major offender, The New York Times reports. They claim he had taken nearly 200,000 pills since 2009 and as recently as April walked out with 1,500 tablets. His bail was set at $500,000. They put a street value of $5.6 million on the drugs.

Prosecutors say they have a signed statement from him admitting the thefts. While his lawyer contends D'Alessandro was stealing to feed his own habit caused by foot pain, prosecutors contend that the number of pills taken and a clean urine test suggest otherwise. If D'Alessandro had downed all the pills that were stolen, "we would be at his funeral rather than his arraignment," prosecutor Ryan Sakacs told the court.

Authorities allege that the pharmacist, who worked weekends, hid the thefts by recording the missing pills in a computerized registry as having been sent to the hospital's research unit. Hospital officials were alerted by an anonymous tip. He has since been fired.

The arrest comes even as the industry is dealing with growing efforts from legislators to limit sales of the highly addictive drugs and pin the industry with responsibility for the cost of dealing with the crime and deaths that have resulted. In recent weeks, lawsuits have been filed by the city of Chicago and two counties in California against 5 manufacturers of prescription painkillers, accusing them of overstating the benefits of opioid painkillers and understating their risks. The handful named in the suits are Actavis ($ACT), Endo ($ENDP), Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma and Teva ($TEVA).

The lawsuits come even as some politicians have tried to thwart federal authority over the prescription drugs. In March, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick banned the newly FDA-approved hydrocodone pill Zohydro, prompting its maker, Zogenix ($ZGNX), to sue. A federal judge struck down the ban in April and yesterday nullified Patrick's follow-up effort. The FDA continues to defend its approvals of narcotic painkillers, saying they give doctors a needed option in treating chronic pain.

- read the NYT story (sub. req.)