Did the opioid epidemic cause a Georgia weight-loss doctor to fall off the DEA's radar?
That’s at least one of the explanations offered by the federal drug enforcement agency for why it didn’t make a case against Dr. Jan McBarron four years ago when it had detailed information that the flamboyant Columbus physician had prescribed drugs to patients she never saw.
Now, the DEA is looking closely at McBarron following the AJC’s story in December that revealed how she was prescribing and dispensing the diet drug phentermine to people based solely on their answers to an online questionnaire.
What the DEA does with the information developed by the AJC remains to be seen, but McBarron, nationally known for her outspoken advocacy of natural products as alternatives to prescription drugs, has already escaped the DEA’s net at least once.
Emails between a former employee and a DEA agent show that the ex-employee provided the agent, Lydia Bagley, with information about McBarron over the course of nearly two months in early 2014.
“Did you have a chance to look at the stuff I sent? Was that the kind of info and details you were looking for?” the former employee asked Bagley at one point.
“Yes, the information you sent is great,” she replied. “I will let you know when I have more questions.”
The information included a detailed narrative in which the ex-employee alleged that new patients were ordering drugs online without being examined and that McBarron was signing the prescriptions after the fact. It also included a series of spread sheets that purported to show how the doctor was clearing tens of thousands of dollars a month through internet drug sales as early as 2012.
The former employee provided the emails to the AJC but asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
The DEA’s inaction means McBarron, who last month announced that she was closing her practice after 30 years and retiring, had the opportunity to rake in cash from prescription drug sales for nearly four more years.
The former employee said Bagley, who is based in the Atlanta office, never sought a personal meeting, although they did speak by phone at least once.
“I gave her all the information I had, but I don’t think they pursued it too deep. Maybe they are understaffed,” the former employee said.
Bagley declined to discuss the case, saying any comment had to come from a DEA public information officer.
A spokesman for the DEA in Atlanta, Robert Evans, said he didn’t know what specifically caused the agency to put the matter on the back burner, but he suggested that it may have had something to do with the proliferation of pill mills and the highly addictive narcotics being dispensed by those operating them.
“We only have a limited amount of resources, so there might have been other things at that time,” Evans said. “Remember, four, five years ago, pill mills were such a hot topic here in the area, so our resources might have gone to something else. “
In any case, the DEA is now looking at McBarron again, and the fact that she is retiring is not an impediment, Evans said.
“You can say we are continuing to process the information,” he said.
McBarron has said her retirement was planned four years ago and has nothing to do with her current circumstances. She hasn’t responded to queries from the AJC regarding her online prescribing or the DEA’s scrutiny of it.