Lawsuit: Small-town pharmacy found new supplier

Blacklisting didn’t stop store’s opiate-ordering surge

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. – This smalltown pharmacy’s orders for the most widely abused opioid on the black market — “Oxy 30 blues” — were high enough to rate blacklisting by at least one drugmaker.

Howard’s Pharmacy owner Steve Rippetoe knew just who to turn to, though: opioid supplier Amerisource-Bergen, newly unsealed records showed.

And Rippetoe was angry.

“I just got blessed, cussed, out today by Steve Rippetoe because we cut his threshold again — very upset,” AmerisourceBergen salesman Mat Miller wrote. “It is fair to say he is ‘at risk’ of moving away from (AmerisourceBergen).”

No matter how much Rippetoe — or AmerisourceBergen — begged, drugmaker Mallinckrodt wouldn’t budge from its blacklist decision, documents show.

The drugmaker’s own records showed Howard’s Pharmacy in Morristown filled prescriptions for more than

About this series

The Knoxville News Sentinel went to court to make public an opioid distributor’s secret records.

An analysis of AmerisourceBergen internal records – contained in a racketeering lawsuit filed against the distributor by the Tennessee Attorney General’s office – reveal a push by the state’s pharmacies for millions of opiates at a time when thou- sands of citizens were dying from them.

100 suspected pill mill doctors, had unusually high orders for “blues” and an unusually high rate of cash-paying customers. AmerisourceBergen found other sources of supply for the pharmacy, records show.

So did Rippetoe.

“Between June and November 2013, (Howard’s Pharmacy) had a 1,252 percent increase in the amount of hydrocodone it purchased from Amerisource,” a lawsuit states. “During those same six months, (the pharmacy’s) purchases of oxycodone from Amerisource increased by 135 percent.”

Howard’s Pharmacy would wind up ordering nearly 8 million opiates from AmerisourceBergen in eight years for a city with a population at the time of fewer than 30,000.

No one answered the phone at the pharmacy despite repeated attempts. The pharmacy’s license remains in good standing with the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy.

Howard’s a top opioid buyer

Howard’s Pharmacy is among a dozen labeled chief conspirators with AmerisourceBergen in what state Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III says was a plot to promote and profiteer from the opioid epidemic in Tennessee.

Slatery’s office has been using the pharmaceutical industry’s own records to build a civil racketeering case against opioid makers, distributors and dispensers and seek to hold them financially responsible for the epidemic.

Those records were made public after a Knox County judge ruled in favor of Knox News’ motion to unseal them.

The lawsuit against AmerisourceBergen is the third in a series filed in Knox County Circuit Court but the first against a pharmacy supplier, and the first to reveal the role pharmacies played in creating and fueling the state’s opioid epidemic. Howard’s Pharmacy “received more opioids from Amerisource … than any other pharmacy in Hamblen County,” the lawsuit states. “(It) was yet another Amerisource independent pharmacy customer with some of the highest rates of oxycodone consumption in the nation.”

The pharmacy ranked ninth on AmerisourceBergen’s top most profitable customers in Tennessee.

AmerisourceBergen was still shipping Howard’s Pharmacy opioids after, its own records show, the firm learned in 2018 three of the top five prescribers sending customers to Howard’s Pharmacy had themselves been banned from receiving any opioid shipments.

“Nevertheless, Amerisource approved (Howard’s Pharmacy) and kept them as a customer.”

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