The Suppliers of the NFL's Painkiller Addiction
While former players are suing the NFL for illegally administering painkillers, whoever is supplying the league is breaking the law, too.
Photo via WikiMedia Commons
I was on the phone with a man several people told me I wouldn't be able to find. While investigating the supply side of the NFL's painkiller problem—the league has been accused in a lawsuit by former players of irresponsibly distributing fistfulls of prescription painkillers to players for decades, causing long-term harm and prompting an ongoing DEA investigation—I wanted to find out how team physicians were able to procure seemingly vast quantities of controlled substances. How did—how do—they get all these pills, which are, by federal law, supposed to be meticulously tracked and prescribed?
The man on the phone could help me understand. He was Jason Kim, the former Pharmacist-In-Charge of an unlicensed Southern California-based pharmacy called SportPharm that, from at least June of 2009 to June of 2010, illegally provided prescription drugs to 81 team doctors across American college and professional sports. After SportPharm and its parent company, RSF Pharmaceuticals, were shut down in June of 2010 by the California Board of Pharmacy for operating as an unlicensed wholesaler and distributor of controlled substances, Jason Kim disappeared.
Kim may have been, for at least a year, the centerpoint of controlled substance abuse in the professional and amateur sports world. SportPharm's name comes up in the NFL painkiller lawsuit, and the company is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by former USC football player Armond Armstead, who claims he suffered heart attacks at age 20 as a result of improper administration of the painkiller Toradol. I figured Kim might have details about supplying professional sports teams around the country with controlled substances, revealing the kind of logistical details the lawsuit's plaintiffs, their lawyers, and the DEA would love to hear—the same details the NFL would love to bury.
I found Kim working at a U.S. Army base.
"This is Major Kim."
"Hi, is this Mr. Jason Kim?" I asked.
"Jason Kim from Southern California?"
"Jason Kim of RSF Pharmaceuticals?" I said.
"Yes, this is he."
I wanted him to say it again. "This is Jason Kim of RSF Pharmaceuticals from Southern California?"
"Yes, who is this?"
I told him I'm a reporter with VICE Sports looking into SportPharm and its involvement in professional sports.
"I'm not going to take this call."
I told him, in a less articulate manner than I'm summarizing here, that I wouldn't be the last person to find him and that, whether he liked it or not, he was in the middle of several high-profile lawsuits. I wanted to hear his side of the story, which just may be the most important one.
"Yeah, I never worked in sports," he said. "I'm not going to take this call. Please don't call me again."
And then Major Jason Kim, the mysterious figure behind an illegal sports pharmacy who is now serving as an army pharmacist, hung up.
Kim had good reason to be skittish. On June 29, 2010, DEA agents and California Board of Pharmacy inspectors raided RSF Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, California. Two subsidiaries of RSF Pharmaceuticals, RSF Manufacturing and SportPharm, operated out of the same location. Neither RSF Manufacturing nor SportPharm possessed the required licenses to buy, re-package, sell, or distribute controlled substances.
During the raid, DEA agents seized binders with the labels College #3, NBA Basketball, Minor League Baseball, Soccer, Team USA, Major League Baseball, AFL Football, College/University, NFL Football, Hockey, and WNBA Basketball.
SportPharm first attracted law enforcement attention when Kevin Ellison, then a San Diego Chargers defensive back, was arrested in May of 2010 for possessing approximately 100 unprescribed pills of Vicodin, a highly addictive painkiller that was recently reclassified as a Schedule II drug, putting it in the same category as oxycodone, opium, and morphine. That case led the DEA to the Chargers' now-infamous former team doctor, David Chao, who wrote at least 50 prescriptions listing himself as the patient that were illegally filled by SportPharm.
Per federal and state law rooted in the Substance Abuse Act of 1970, all pharmacies must log and report any transaction involving controlled substances, as outlined by the DEA Pharmacist Handbook: "Every pharmacy must maintain complete and accurate records on a current basis for each controlled substance purchased, received, stored, distributed, dispensed, or otherwise disposed of." In addition, pharmacies must record "transfers of controlled substances between pharmacies."
When investigators searched federal and state databases for RSF and SportPharm activity, they discovered that Chao was just the tip of the iceberg. The California Board of Pharmacy report states:
"[RSF] filled prescriptions for at least eighty-one (81) different physicians in 27 different states where the physician listed himself or herself as the patient in the prescription. These prescriptions were written by team physicians for professional and college sports teams throughout the United States and were apparently intended for office use and distribution by the physicians to either team staff or team players, despite the fact that each prescription indicates that the patient was the physician who wrote the prescription."
The dozens of substances SportPharm was officially cited for distributing—including local anesthetics, corticosteroid creams, and epipens—have legitimate medical uses for sports trainers, including anti-inflammation and allergy treatments. Unlike Vicodin, none are classified as Schedule II drugs. A few have been used by athletes for performance-enhancing purposes—former BALCO mastermind Victor Conte told VICE Sports that he gave sprinter Tim Montgomery the drug Epinephrine (adrenaline) when he won the 100 meter title at the 2001 U.S Track and Field Championships—but several experts who reviewed the list for VICE Sports said the substances could be found in virtually any sports physician's supply and that none appeared particularly suspicious.
However, the presence of ketorolac (Toradol) on the same list suggests that the 81 team physicians also were using SportPharm to obtain painkilling drugs. Did the company sell prescription painkillers to team doctors besides Chao? It's difficult to say, since the evidence is under the California Board of Pharmacy's and DEA's control, both of whom refused to make that evidence available or speak to its contents.
By writing prescriptions listing themselves as the patient, all of those 81 physicians were violating the law. By filling the prescription, SportPharm also was violating the law. "A prescription may not be issued in order for an individual practitioner to obtain controlled substances for supplying the individual practitioner for the purpose of general dispensing to patients," states the DEA Pharmacist's Handbook.
SportPharm engaged in a host of illegal activities in order to cover up its shady business practices. From September 1, 2009 through June 10, 2010, RSF Pharmaceuticals ordered and reported all of their prescriptions under an expired registration number, violating the law and making their transactions difficult to track. The DEA's Pharmacist Handbook explains, "Once the expiration date has passed and no renewal has been received by the DEA, the pharmacy has no authority to handle controlled substances." Yet, for that 10 month period, RSF reported over 1,200 prescriptions filed under the expired registration number.
RSF ordered drugs for the unlicensed SportPharm, which would then repackage and sell them to team physicians as an unlicensed wholesaler.
SportPharm received orders for controlled substances over the phone or email. The Board of Pharmacy report describes SportPharm's clientele as "generally athletic trainers for national sports teams." The orders were then shuffled to RSF, where a staff pharmacist would call the client to verify the order, change it into an oral prescription, fill the order, then send the pills back to SportPharm for re-packaging, labelling, and shipment; often directly to trainers or physicians at team facilities.
No written records were kept to log the transfer of drugs between RSF and SportPharm, a direct violation of the law which requires all transactions involving controlled substances to be documented. Further, unlicensed businesses cannot handle, sell, or distribute controlled substances, yet SportPharm did it anyways.
When the inspectors raided the facility, they found worksheets that showed "expired drugs were used in the compounding of dangerous drugs and controlled substances, thereby diluting or changing their strength and quality."
The SportPharm labels hardly contained any information at all; there was no dosage or frequency instruction for a patient to follow, which is also a violation of the law. The only instructions provided read to use "as directed" by the physicians that illegally prescribed them.
RSF Pharmaceuticals, RSF Manufacturing, and SportPharm were operated by Jason Kim, who, by several accounts, was a pharmaceutical prodigy. According to U-T San Diego, in 2004, Kim graduated from the Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at the University of the Pacific. A mere three years later, U-T San Diego reported Kim was a decorated pharmacist, winning local awards and demonstrating uncanny acumen for chemical composition. Reportedly, he could spot whether medicated facial cream would work based on a quick glance at the active ingredients.
On June 13, 2008, the California Board of Pharmacy issued a pharmacy license to RSF Pharmaceuticals, Inc., with Jason Kim as the Pharmacist-In-Charge. Three months later, SportPharm was founded at the same address as RSF.
According to the Board of Pharmacy report, SportPharm was sold to a Hong Kong company the following month, in October 2008. Although the foreign corporation was not named in the report, the board made clear that the foreign corporation did not obtain the required licenses from the FDA, DEA, or state of California to operate a pharmacy. "SportPharm was an unlicensed entity," the report reads, "yet operated as a broker or wholesaler of dangerous drugs, controlled substances and compounded medications in CA."
Kim admitted to California Board of Pharmacy inspectors that RSF Pharmaceuticals did business on behalf of SportPharm and that "SportPharm is not licensed as a pharmacy, wholesaler, broker or repacker of drugs."
By the end of June 2010, both RSF and Kim surrendered their licenses to the DEA, and by February of 2011, Kim surrendered his pharmacy license to the Board of Pharmacy as well. He promptly disappeared.
After RSF Pharmaceutical's collapse, SportPharm was re-branded as a subsidiary of Champion Health Services, based in Huntington Beach, California, where both businesses currently operate.
Rather than distance themselves from SportPharm, NFL teams still use the company's substance tracking system. In a report on league painkiller use published last year, Washington Post writers Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese wrote that "about half" of the teams in the NFL use SportPharm's proprietary software.
A former veteran NFL head trainer, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that all teams use SportPharm "in one way or another." According to him, a trainer or trainer's assistant is responsible for logging every prescription into the tracking system, as reported by the team physician. It was up to each individual team whether they ordered their drugs through SportPharm or from another source.
Despite claims in 2012 that they were in compliance with state law, SportPharm remains unlicensed with the California Board of Pharmacy. On August 27, 2014, SportPharm was fined $5,000 for operating without a pharmaceutical or wholesale license since November 28, 2012—during which time, the former NFL trainer says, league teams have been in business with the company. The fine, which was due on September 26, 2014, remains unpaid.
The $5,000 fine against Jason Kim and RSF Pharmaceuticals from 2011 also remains unpaid.
Despite violating several provisions of the Substance Abuse Act of 1970 and a host of state laws, Jason Kim, RSF Pharmaceuticals, SportPharm, and the 81 physicians who illegally wrote prescriptions for themselves were never charged with any crime. A spokeswoman for the San Diego DEA Field Division told me that the investigation against SportPharm and Jason Kim was "administratively closed," meaning charges will not be filed.
Champion Health Services, the U.S. Attorney's office of the Southern District of California, the NFL, representatives for the NFL Physicians Society, and, of course, Jason Kim all refused to comment on this story. The California Board of Pharmacy declined my public records request for documents and evidence relating to these investigations, despite the case being complete.
After reporting on this story, I have more questions than answers. First: were the controlled substances listed on the Board of Pharmacy complaint all being used for legitimate purposes? Were Jason Kim and SportPharm compounding drugs for performance-enhancing purposes, like mixing Toradol injections with, say, testosterone? And was SportPharm peddling team trainers powerful painkillers that weren't on the Board of Pharmacy list, like the Vicodin pills sold to Chao?
Next, if all of the controlled substances were used for legitimate medical purposes, why would so many reputable physicians in major sports leagues—whose names we do not know because the DEA and Board of Pharmacy won't release their evidence for a closed case—use an illegal, unlicensed pharmacy that didn't track the purchases? Why write the prescriptions to themselves? Why take the risk of breaking the law? Why not just shop at a nearby CVS?
What, exactly, was in those 14 binders the DEA confiscated? Did all of those doctors from seemingly every major American league—plus physicians from college squads and "Team USA"—purchase controlled substances from this unlicensed pharmacy?
Why did the DEA never press charges against SportPharm, the physicians, or Jason Kim when illegal activity was clearly committed? Why did the case disappear? If everything other than the pharmacy's licenses was kosher, why does nobody want to talk about it?
The answers to most of these questions are either in Jason Kim's memory, locked-away government files, or both. Yet, even without answers, the SportPharm story does provide one useful insight: it might explain how team doctors in the NFL and other leagues obtain access to vast quantities of controlled substances without provoking the sort of immediate suspicion that, say, a hospital doctor would face upon writing 50 painkiller scripts for herself.
In 2010, after the DEA raid, Kim's lawyer, Michael Lipman, claimed pro sports teams did business with SportPharm because of the proprietary software to aid the tracking of controlled substances, which the NFL still uses today. "Why on Earth would all these teams use a small pharmacy in San Diego? There's a very simple answer," Lipman told U-T San Diego after the raid in 2010. "The teams use and leagues are aware of this pharmacy because of the unique tracking system they provide to the teams that allow them to track controlled substances."
However, according to the U-T San Diego report, Lipman confirmed that sports team doctors didn't just use SportPharm for the tracking system, but also to buy painkillers, and possibly lots of them: "Lipman said RSF also receives purchase orders from team doctors for a variety of prescription drugs, largely pain medication."
So unless Kim's lawyer was outright lying, we know the NFL procured painkillers from SportPharm. SportPharm's operation wasn't rocket science: set up two companies in the same building, one legitimate and one not. The ease with which SportPharm pulled this off and became what appears to have been a major player in the sports prescription drug scene is both a condemnation of law enforcement and the teams and leagues that seemingly took—take?—advantage of it. In fact, it's hard not to conclude that the only reason the whole thing came crashing down is because Ellison was especially careless with his Vicodin pills.
What did those 81 physicians do when SportPharm shut down? Was it a medical malpractice Come-to-Jesus moment? Or did they find another SportPharm to do the same thing?
How many companies like SportPharm are still out there?
For all of the questions that remain, one thing seems clear: neither NFL team doctors nor physicians in other sports were nearly as careful about how they obtain and handle controlled substances as they typically claim to be. It wasn't hard to see that everyone involved with SportPharm was breaking the law, yet nobody bothered to look. Maybe that was the point.
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