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Illegal Selling of Prescription Drug Charged

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 33-year-old woman who allegedly sold prescription drugs from a swap-meet booth to an undercover deputy was charged Monday on two counts of illegally dispensing the medicine, a public health problem county officials fear may be growing.

Irma Oscornio Felix of Panorama City will be arraigned Sept. 1 on charges of selling a prescription drug without a license and dispensing a drug that is not properly packaged, both misdemeanors, said Deputy City Atty. Keith De La Rosa. She faces up to a year in County Jail and a $5,000 fine if convicted.

More than 180 raids on back-room clinics have been executed since the Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force--composed of the state Department of Health Services, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department--was formed in June 1998.

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In the Felix case, investigators received a tip that she sold medicine from a swap-meet booth at 9132 Sepulveda Blvd. in North Hills. On June 9, an undercover Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy went to Felix, complaining about a persistent cough.

Felix sold the officer Terramicina--a penicillin-related antibiotic that requires a physician’s prescription--for $8, De La Rosa said. The cough medicine was wrapped in a box with Spanish writing on it, which is also illegal, he said.

Police quickly moved in and confiscated other drugs, including several steroid products, female contraceptives, several injectable forms of penicillin, syringes and other antibiotics. Deputies also found the tablet form of Agin, which can be lethal after one dose to those allergic to the drug, De La Rosa said.

“This was a fairly large inventory,” he said. “But she’s not a doctor. She wasn’t licensed to sell these drugs.”

In an effort spearheaded by county Supervisor Gloria Molina, the task force formed in June 1998 to crack down, through use of tips, on the rising illegal sale of prescription drugs in the county, said Don Ashton, the task force’s supervising environmental specialist .

“Our primary agenda is to get rid of these illegal operations,” Ashton said. “To say the problem is completely gone would be untrue, but we are making a difference.”

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Ashton said many raids have taken place, throughout the San Fernando Valley.

In May, Elba Hernandez, 54, of Northridge, was sentenced to four years in prison for operating a chain of illegal pharmacies in Van Nuys, Arleta, Panorama City and Sun Valley. Four co-defendants were given sentences ranging from six days to six months.

Often, medications are smuggled in from Mexico and peddled throughout Southern California, usually out of back-room shops and swap meets that cater to Latino immigrants skeptical of mainstream medicine and doctors on this side of the border, De La Rosa said.

U.S. Customs officials have seen an increase in medicines coming across the border as they also step up efforts to curb the problem, according to Vince Bond, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs office in San Diego.

“We’ve had some pretty big seizures already this year,” Bond said. “We’re deeply concerned about the increasing number of individuals who buy medicines across the border, stockpile them here and take them up to Los Angeles to sell.”

Customs officials are permitted to allow some medicines to cross the border, as long as people declare them, Bond said. Officials follow guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration to determine who is allowed to bring some drugs across the border, such as aspirin and some female contraceptives. If the load is too big or the drugs questionable, everything is confiscated at the border, he said.

“It comes down to society wanting to self-medicate themselves or trying to find a cheap way to heal themselves,” Bond said. “That isn’t a good situation either.”

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The underground sale of Mexican-marketed drugs to Latinos sparked public outrage when two Orange County infants died after treatment at back-room clinics.

Selene Seguro Rios died in February after being injected with a prescription drug in the back of a Tustin gift shop. The clinic was operated by Laura Escalante, who is believed to have fled to Mexico. In July, Orange County prosecutors issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of manslaughter, child endangerment and unauthorized practice of medicine.

Last year, a 13-month-old Santa Ana boy died after being taken to a back-room clinic. Prosecutors filed involuntary manslaughter charges against a man they say posed as a physician. He fled the country.

Those deaths prompted Orange County officials to form a Safe Healthcare Coalition this year to educate residents about back-room clinics. Los Angeles County officials established a similar education program earlier this year, Ashton said.

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