An $80 million settlement was announced in June, 2013 by Walgreens and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as resolution of government charges that Walgreens was failing to control opioid pain reliever sales in some stores. Now Walgreens is being sued for negligence in the case of a man who died from a Vicodin overdose in August, 2012.
Despite a call to Walgreens from John P. Oles’ doctor on April 20, 2010, telling the pharmacy not to fill any more Vicodin prescriptions for Oles because he was abusing the drug, the pharmacy continued to fill prescriptions through July 2012, when Oles died of an opiate overdose. Last week Oles’ mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Walgreens.
According to the lawsuit, a note that Oles was abusing Vicodin was placed in his Walgreens computer file after the physician called, but the pharmacy still continued to refill the prescription, despite the fact that Oles’ primary physician was no longer prescribing the drug.
Walgreens, particularly in Florida, has been in the spotlight since April, 2012, for supplying patients with excessive amounts of painkiller drugs, including OxyContin and Vicodin. According to the DEA, Walgreens corporate officials created bonus programs that gave pharmacists encouragement to sell Oxycodone and ignore warnings that the customers were abusing the drug.
One Walgreens manager had expressed concern that some of its Florida pharmacies were ordering excessive quantities of the popular painkiller, but corporate supervisors did nothing to follow up, according to the DEA. The DEA placed a suspension order on the Walgreens distribution center in September, 2012, that stopped the supplying of controlled substances to its stores in Florida and the East Coast.
DEA documents said that Walgreens was encouraging its employees to sell even more Oxycodone, even though dozens of people in Florida were dying from prescription drug overdoses, as in the Vicodin death the current negligence lawsuit pertains to. As part of the agreement with the DEA, one Florida distribution center and six Florida pharmacies were banned from dispensing certain drugs including painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin until September, 2014.
The ban has caught some patients in a situation where they are unable to get their legitimate prescriptions for painkillers filled. Even at Walgreens stores where painkillers can still be obtained, new company policies require pharmacists to follow a “secret checklist” when filling opioid pain medicine prescriptions.
The Walgreens checklist requires pharmacists to get a government ID for each patient and check a prescription drug monitoring database before filling a prescription for opioid painkillers. Warning signs are looked for, such as pain medication prescriptions filled at non-Walgreens pharmacies, different physicians writing prescriptions for the same medication, patients looking for early refills or paying cash, or patients taking the same pain medication for more than six months.
When in doubt, the pharmacists are told to contact the prescribing physician and verify the date of the patient’s last office visit, the prescription, the diagnosis, and the expected treatment length. This causes unexpected delays for many patients who, along with physicians, are complaining in increasing numbers to the American Academy of Pain Management and the American Medical Association (AMA).
An AMA spokesman says that physicians in over 20 states are reporting the inappropriate restriction of legitimate patient access to pain medications, which in some cases causes serious treatment issues. The American Academy of Pain Management has developed an on-line complaint form for patients and doctors to use who are having trouble filling prescriptions at Walgreens.
At this time John P. Oles’ Vicodin overdose death is the only lawsuit of that type filed against Walgreens. As of yet there have been no lawsuits filed over the issue of being unable to get prescriptions filled by the pharmacy.
By Beth A. Balen