Walgreens is one of the largest pharmacy chains in the country. Many rely on their local branch to get their doctor prescribed medication in hopes of treating their ailments and maladies. However, for some people, the guarantee of friendly pharmaceutical service has been replaced with humiliation and a denial of medication, despite their having an authentic prescription from their doctor. Walgreens has started denying people their medication thanks to a new policy that allows employees to determine whether or not they feel the customer is at high risk for abusing the drug.
The main target of these new policies center around opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl. A Walgreens representative stated in an email that the purpose of their policies was to reduce the amount of prescriptions being filled fraudulently. Considering that Walgreens settled a lawsuit with the government that resulted in $80 million in fines for just this reason, the introduction of new policies to protect the company from further litigation might seem like a reasonable action for the company to take.
However, a small, but growing number of critics disagree with assertions that these policies are in any way reasonable the way they are being practiced.
The lawsuit was the direct result of an investigation in Florida, conducted by the DEA and Department of Justice, that revealed that Walgreens was consistently filling forged or photocopied prescriptions for opioid medication and that the erroneously distributed pills were then trafficked illegally. The day after the settlement was reached, customers began experiencing problems filling their prescriptions, even if they had legally obtained prescriptions from their doctor.
Not just any customers, though. People with long histories with their Walgreen’s pharmacy were suddenly being turned away. People like “Robert,” who had been struggling with the severe and constant pain resulting from multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and peripheral neuropathy. He had been filling his prescriptions for a couple of years when suddenly his prescription needed to be verified. He was told it could take days, and he was unable to get back the hard copy of his prescription to take it elsewhere.
At this point, Robert says he began to panic. Over the five years since his diagnosis, his pain has been so severe that at times he contemplated suicide and now he was being told he would have to go up to five days without any medical help to ease his suffering. Upon expressing his concern and incredulity at the pharmacist’s right to take away his prescription, the pharmacist told him to leave and threatened to call the police. Robert waited several days for his medication and was so debilitated by the pain that he was unable to leave his bed to get it when it was finally available.
Robert is not alone in his sudden pharmacy difficulties. Evan Blass, 35, was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and filled his prescriptions at a different pharmacy before needing to make a trip to Walgreens when his regular pharmacy was out of the medications he sought. He was completely denied his medication. A few months later, he went to a second Walgreens location only to be denied again. He was then informed that he would be denied by every Walgreens pharmacy as he had been “blacklisted.”
Then there is “J.C.” who had been filling her prescription at Walgreens for nearly a decade. Diagnosed with thrombosis, she took a combination of opioid medications to help combat the painful blood clots that formed in her legs. The day after Walgreens’ settlement, she was denied any further medication from Walgreens stores. She reports that the pharmacist said to her, in front of everyone present, “We suggest you take it to CVS. At this point we’re just feeding an addiction.”
The use of opiate based pain medication has been the cause of much concern as the rates of abuse and addiction have steadily risen over the last 25 years. Since 1990 the rate of deaths from overdose has tripled, according to the CDC. CNN reports that one person dies due to a prescription medication overdose every 19 minutes. The staggering body count has prompted the FDA to take measures to regulate how and when these medications are being obtained. These measures include reformulating the pills so that they cannot be crushed for injection or snorting, encouraging more careful prescription practices from doctors and establishing a database to help monitor drug use and detect abuse.
It is important to note that these measures are meant to protect people from the dangers of opioid addiction and overdose. They are not punishments for people who suffer with addiction. People who are addicted to a substance are not stuck in that illness by choice. They did not decide to become addicted. Many factors go into the development of an addiction, such as genetics, environmental and socioeconomic factors, and overall health.
Walgreens appears to have developed its own system, which includes a checklist (viewable in the sources section) that aids in pharmacists using their own discretion to determine whether or not a person should be given their medication. Items on the list include checking for a valid I.D. and looking for “red flags” such as if the person pays with cash. Doctors report being inundated with calls from Walgreens pharmacists who demand to know if the doctor actually wrote the prescription, what the diagnosis of the patient is and how long the medication will be needed by the patient. Based on reports from customers and doctors alike, many employees have started enacting these new policies with a stigmatized approach, one that assumes that everyone with a painkiller prescription are addicts. Their approach has resulted in people with legitimately debilitating illness being subjected to lengthy delays or facing a pharmacy intent on denying them the medication they desperately need.
By: Vanessa Blanchard