Orange County News
Costco sued by former pharmacy technician over prescription drugs, wrongful termination
IRVINE, Calif. (KABC) -- A former Costco pharmacy technician says he had a front row seat to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse at a store in Irvine.
Shad Thomas lives in Orange County and worked at the Irvine Costco pharmacy for more than seven years. Thomas says he was fired after raising concerns and contacting law enforcement about a string of doctors and questionable prescriptions. Now, Thomas has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and told his story exclusively to Eyewitness News.
"I like to believe that I did the right thing, and I did it early on," he said. "It was only a small percentage of doctors, but everybody that worked in that pharmacy knew the ones that were dirty."
In his wrongful termination lawsuit, Thomas accuses Costco pharmacy managers of dispensing "excessive narcotic prescriptions to addicted customers," dismissing Thomas' concerns and acting to "protect its profits."
In the lawsuit, Thomas says he red-flagged seven local doctors over the years. Among them was Dr. Vu Le, who is now in federal prison.
Dr. Lisa Tseng, the Rowland Heights former physician now awaiting trial on three counts of second-degree murder for the overdose deaths of three patients, was arrested last year. Dr. Conchita Goings surrendered her medical license in 2009, and Dr. Dzung Pham was disciplined by the medical board in 2007 for gross negligence. Pham is still practicing.
"My pharmacy manager had developed a reputation in our community for dispensing narcotics and turning our head in the other direction," Thomas said.
Of those seven flagged doctors, four continue to practice and prescribe, including one Southern California doctor who Thomas claims in his lawsuit prescribed 7,000 oxycodone to a single patient in one year.
In November 2009, Thomas says that patient came into Costco 10 days early for a refill.
"Right away, everybody in the pharmacy noticed that he was under the influence of something," Thomas said. "It was so bad that the two pharmacists that were on duty refused to fill his prescription."
One of those pharmacists, Huong Nguyen, called the DEA. In his lawsuit, Thomas says Costco retaliated against Nguyen for making the calling.
"She was issued a written reprimand," he said.
Costco wouldn't say if Nguyen was disciplined or why. But a letter written by a Costco regional manager to Thomas states that Costco did not discipline a pharmacist for calling the DEA, but rather for "failure to follow Costco procedures which require that pharmacy management be informed prior to any decision involving the refusal to fill a medication."
"There's a high profit potential, so they don't want to turn these people away," said attorney Larry Eisenberg.
Eisenberg is suing Tseng and Costco for wrongful death on behalf of the family of Vu Nguyen. According to their lawsuit, Vu Nguyen had his prescriptions from Tseng filled at two Costcos, both in Tustin.
One prescription for Opana, Norco and Xanax was filled 21 days before his overdose death. Costco has filed a motion to dismiss the Nguyen wrongful death case.
So why would a Costco pharmacy manager allegedly turn a blind eye to questionable prescriptions? One clue might come from a 2002 Drug Topics newsletter for pharmacists. In it, an assistant vice president for Costco pharmacy operations boasts about Costco's "handsome bonus program" for pharmacy managers. Those bonuses are based, in part, on sales.
"Money. That's the one thing that stands out the most for me was that it's all about money," Thomas said.
No one from the retail giant would give Eyewitness News an on-camera interview, but their attorney did say that Costco conducted a third-party, independent investigation of Thomas' claims and found them to be "baseless." Costco would not provide a copy of that investigation.
orange county news, david ono
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