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The VA's Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy in North Charleston filled 26.4 million prescriptions last year. About a decade ago, it was serving as a clearinghouse for opioid prescriptions that were then distributed to VA patients across the country. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

A newly released database showed that Charleston County is one of the nation's largest distribution points for opioid painkillers, but that doesn't mean local residents took the pills themselves.

Much of the volume can be traced to the Veterans Affairs' North Charleston Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy, which shipped an increasing number of opioids to veterans  between 2006 and 2012, according to a review of Drug Enforcement Administration data.

The statistics became public after two newspapers, The Washington Post and The Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W. Va., asked a federal judge to release the previously sealed DEA information. The judge ruled in their favor Monday. 

The database is a snapshot into an important piece of the supply chain for the addictive painkillers during a period of aggressive marketing for drug manufacturers and distributors, which are now being sued for damages by more than 2,000 local governments.

It includes pills dispensed from community pharmacies, hospitals and mail-order centers, like the seven that the VA has operated around the country for decades.

An analysis Tuesday from The Washington Post showed Charleston County had the highest concentration of pain pills dispensed per person of any county in the U.S. 

It turns out the VA's mail-order pharmacy, which sends prescriptions to patients enrolled in VA health care across the country, is the major driver of the high volume.

That also explains why Leavenworth, Kan., was flagged by The Washington Post as another major distribution site. The Midwest city is home to a similar VA pharmacy that mass-mails prescription drugs. 

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The VA has been filling and shipping prescriptions from its North Charleston center to veterans in the Southeast and Puerto Rico since 1997. 

Candace Hull, a VA spokeswoman for the Southeast District, pointed to major improvements in how the agency manages pain for its patients. Dosages are decreasing, she said in a statement to The Post and Courier, and far fewer patients are receiving opioids on the whole.

VA had an average of 5.8 million patients enrolled in its health care system during between 2006 and 2012, the vast majority of them veterans.

The community pharmacy that distributed the greatest volume of opioids in Charleston during those years was a Walgreen's on James Island, according to the Washington Post analysis.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.