PERALTA — Joe’s Pharmacy, a community staple in the town of Peralta, is no longer filling prescriptions after the state pharmacy licensing board accepted the surrender of pharmacy owner Michael Leon Otero’s board-issued licenses in a settlement agreement last month.
On May 26, the Board of Pharmacy for the State of New Mexico reached an agreement with the pharmacy itself, Otero and pharmacist-in-charge Shirley Jojola after federal Drug Enforcement Agency inspections in 2018 and 2019 found “substantial deficiencies” in the pharmacy’s operations, including more than 20,000 unaccounted for doses of various opioids.
The settlement agreement requires Otero to surrender his licenses after the completion of the proper disposition of all “dangerous drugs and prescription products” at the pharmacy. Otero’s licensure as a pharmacy technician was used for the 30 days the board gave the pharmacy for disposal of prescription products in its possession.
The pharmacy has 45 days to complete a full audit of “dangerous drugs and prescription products from the date of acceptance of the settlement to two years prior, and within 60 days of the board’s approval of the agreement, Joe’s Pharmacy shall surrender its board-issued license.
“… respondent Michael (Leon) Otero shall never again own or operate a facility requiring licensure from the New Mexico Board of Pharmacy, nor shall he apply for approval to do so,” the settlement reads.
Otero shall “never again engage in activity requiring licensure” from the board or apply for approval to do so, the settlement terms conclude.
Otero, who is also a Peralta town councilor, declined the New-Bulletin’s request for comment on last month’s board of pharmacy settlement, or the events leading to the settlement.
According to state law, “whenever an applicable law, rule or regulation requires or prohibits action by a pharmacy, responsibility for the violation shall be that of the owner and the pharmacist in charge.”
As part of the settlement, Jojola agreed to transfer her PIC duties to another properly licensed and qualified pharmacist when the board accepted the agreement last month.
Jojola is never allowed to again work as pharmacist-in-charge or consulting pharmacist in the state, and will serve a five-year probationary period on her pharmacist’s license.
Both Otero and Jojola signed the settlement on May 25.
The settlement with the board came after a state drug inspector investigated two audits conducted by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in August 2018 and February 2019 found “substantial deficiencies” after looking at 10 different medications dispensed by Otero’s pharmacy.
According to an investigative report completed by a board of pharmacy investigator in March 2019, the DEA audit found a “shortage of approximately 4,000 tablets … for oxycodone 15mg, a shortage of approximately 1,000 tablets clonazepam 1mg and an approximate shortage of 450 films of Suboxone 8/2mg sublingual,” which are all highly-regulated opioids.
Otero voluntarily surrendered his DEA registration, which is required to operate a retail pharmacy in the United States, on March 12, 2019. He surrendered his New Mexico Board of Pharmacy controlled substances registration two days later on March 14, 2019.
An inspection conducted by an investigator working for the New Mexico Board of Pharmacy beginning in April 2019 found Joe’s Pharmacy had a shortage of eight out of the 10 controlled substances previously audited by the DEA — carisoprodol, clonazepam, diazepam, hydrocodone, oxycodone 15mg, oxycodone 30mg, suboxone and zolpidem. The shortage amounts to about 22,000 doses from May 1, 2017, to March 12, 2019.
The audit also reported an overage of both alprazolam and morphine. The state inspector noted these results were similar to the findings reported by the DEA.
In addition to the shortages and overages of controlled substances, the 2019 on-site inspection by NMBOP reported that a pharmacy technician was using another technician’s credentials to log into the reporting system.
“Otero indicated that non-licensed/non-staff family members had access to the front area of the store after-hours, but the pharmacy is not secured separately from the front area,” the inspection report indicated.
Several of the inspector’s findings carried over from the last NMBOP state inspection in August 2017, which reported food, some growing mold, stored in the same fridge as medications, expired medications stored alongside in-date medications, negative amounts of medication entered into the pharmacy operating system and improper disposal of personal health information.
“This was presumably occurring because prescriptions were processed as ‘dispensed’ prior to having the medication in-stock,” the investigator wrote in the report to NMBOP about negative quantities being entered into their system.
“Upon ordering and receiving the medication, these quantities would be updated, but occasionally they would be updated in a manner that did not account for the negative quantities; they would simply be updated with the number received.”
The inspector also noted on some days audited, there were “multiple updates to the quantity in the inventory system, sometimes significant quantities within minutes of each other,” noting this in relation to oxycodone 15mg.
According to the Joe’s Pharmacy Facebook page, while the pharmacy is closed, the front of the store will remain open “until the time being.”
All prescriptions were transferred to Albertsons in Los Lunas.
Joe’s Pharmacy was established in 1967 by Jose Otero, Leon Otero’s father. Jose Otero sold the business in the 1980s, but when then-owner Horizon Pharmacy sold the store’s drug stock and patient records to Smith’s Food and Drug in January 2002, Leon decided to revive the name of Joe’s and re-establish an independent pharmacy in Peralta.
Joe’s Pharmacy Investigation and Settlement
Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.