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Counterfeit HIV Drugs; Turned Away By Rural EDs; Bogus Pop-Up Testing Sites

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Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

Counterfeit HIV Drugs

Drugmaker Gilead says a network of suppliers and distributors sold counterfeit versions of its HIV medications, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The company found that just over 85,000 counterfeit bottles of Biktarvy and Descovy — valued at $250 million — were sold to pharmacies over the past 2 years. The two drugs had combined sales of $10.2 billion last year, according to WSJ.

A majority of the drugs allegedly were purchased from HIV patients who were homeless or who had substance use disorder, and then re-sold using fake documentation, according to WSJ, which reported on a lawsuit filed by Gilead that was unsealed on Tuesday.

The lawsuit states that in several cases, the bottles also contained the wrong pills — including the antipsychotic drug Seroquel, and Tylenol.

Gilead was first made aware of the issues in August 2020 by a report from White Cross Pharmacy in Brawley, California. A customer told the pharmacy that their Biktarvy bottle contained the wrong pills, which turned out to be Tylenol. Other bottles purchased by a pharmacy in Texas were purported to be from AmerisourceBergen, but its pedigree documents were fake.

Gilead hired its own private investigators and worked with federal and local law enforcement to execute seizures at offices and warehouses where suspected counterfeit medications were stored, ultimately at 17 locations in nine states, WSJ reported.

Turned Away By Rural EDs

Rural hospitals have been hit especially hard during the Omicron wave, as the virus has taken out already-squeezed staff, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico, for instance, which serves the Navajo Nation, was asking patients to come back in a couple of days — even though many had driven more than 2 hours for care, WSJ reported.

“You’re not going to get a bed unless you need a ventilator, or you have a gunshot wound,” William Porter, deputy director of operations for Team Rubicon, told WSJ. Team Rubicon sends volunteer military veterans into disaster areas.

The problems are vast for rural healthcare, particularly during this surge. Just one or two workers being out sick can shut down an entire clinic, WSJ reported.

Rural hospitals are also having trouble hiring travel nurses because of higher prices driven by higher demand. Instead, they’re using veterans groups and foreign nurses to prop up staffing, according to WSJ. Some are even hiring unvaccinated workers who were fired in other locations for not complying with vaccine mandates.

Hospitals are also asking workers who test positive for COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic to report to work, WSJ reported.

Sanford Health, which covers remote parts of the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa, said one of its critical access hospitals closed after all four nurses got sick with COVID-19. The health system has also asked asymptomatic and COVID-positive employees who no longer feel sick to return to work after 5 days, WSJ reported.

Bogus Pop-Up Testing Sites

Not all COVID testing sites are created equal, and high demand has spurred opportunities for bad actors, Kaiser Health News and CNN reported.

These sites are putting people at risk of identity theft, missing or inaccurate test results, and financial loss, the outlets reported.

One patient advocacy group in Illinois told KHN and CNN that people at testing sites in the Chicago area have reported that employees asked them to provide their Social Security or credit card numbers before being tested — even though tests are typically free. Those employees were also not wearing masks or gloves.

An official from the Illinois Department of Public Health told the news outlets that they’re aware of the complaints and are investigating.

In Philadelphia, a sidewalk COVID testing tent falsely claimed to be working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) but the agency said it was not funding any testing centers in the city at the moment, the outlets reported.

Health officials said it’s not easy to distinguish good from bad — especially as pop-up sites include more tents and vans — but they hope the issue won’t deter people from getting tested.

  • Kristina Fiore leads MedPage’s enterprise & investigative reporting team. She’s been a medical journalist for more than a decade and her work has been recognized by Barlett & Steele, AHCJ, SABEW, and others. Send story tips to k.fiore@medpagetoday.com. Follow

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