A Salt Lake City-based nonprofit filed a price gouging complaint with the Utah Division of Consumer Protection against a pharmacy that sold the state $800,000 worth of an anti-malaria drug that’s been touted as a COVID-19 treatment despite warnings from medical experts.

Alliance for a Better Utah submitted the complaint against Draper-based Meds in Motion on Tuesday “stemming from the State of Utah’s recent purchase of 20,000 courses of treatment of antimalarial drugs from Meds in Motion for $800,000.”

On Thursday, the Deseret News reported that state officials purchased medication packs consisting of hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and zinc, from Meds in Motion on March 31 without notifying the Utah Department of Health.

The complaint, written by Executive Director Chase Thomas, said that Meds in Motion CEO Dan Richards “has been publicly advocating the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 and actively lobbying the state to purchase the drugs from his company,” noting that Richards appeared in a press conference with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, on March 20.

Thomas alleged that calculations by Alliance for a Better Utah show that the pharmacy sold the state drugs at an inflated price.

“From our own examination of hydroxychloroquine prices on GoodRx conducted on Monday, April 27, 2020, 60 tablets could be purchased with a free GoodRx discount for $14.95 at Smith’s Pharmacy,” the complaint said. “Even while paying cash without the GoodRx discount, the price for 60 tablets is an average of $176.91. At $5.71 per tablet, the price from Meds in Motion is almost double the non-discounted price for these drugs ($2.95 per tablet) and almost ten times the price of these drugs for most consumers ($0.25 per tablet).”

In the complaint, Thomas accused Meds in Motion of “attempt(ing) to take advantage of a crisis to exploit the use of taxpayer funds” and called on the Division of Consumer Protection to investigate.

“Price gouging is an exploitative and unethical practice, especially during a time of crisis or emergency,” Thomas wrote. “This is even more true when the goods in question are medications.”

Richards could not be reached on Tuesday to comment on the complaint.

The Utah State Legislature passed a bill on Thursday that, among other things, appropriated $6 million for “securing a supply of drugs for the treatment of COVID-19,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, in addition to $2 million that had already been set aside.

“That could mean hydroxychloroquine, it could mean something else,” Last said. “But these funds are going to be set aside for potential treatments, and we may not even know what they are at this point in time.”

Hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy in treating COVID-19 has been seriously questioned by drug and medical experts.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, issued a statement cautioning against the use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine to treat COVID-19 “outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems.”

“Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19,” the FDA said, adding that the drugs “can cause abnormal heart rhythms such as QT interval prolongation and a dangerously rapid heart rate called ventricular tachycardia.”

The same day, Gov. Herbert announced at a press briefing that the state would abandon efforts to purchase hydroxychloroquine, adding that the discussions to purchase the original 20,000 units took place “unbeknownst to me.”

“The negotiations for additional orders have ceased,” Herbert said. “I also understand the state has not yet taken delivery of the initial order of 20,000 … units of hydroxychloroquine.”

According to the Utah Department of Commerce, price gouging during a state of emergency is illegal under the state’s Price Controls Under Emergencies Act. It is defined as when “a seller increases the prices of goods, services or commodities to a level much higher than is considered reasonable or fair” during a declared state of emergency and is publishable by a $1,000 fine per incidence.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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