Carl Monday investigates pill shortages at the pharmacy

Carl Monday Investigation: Prescriptions that come up short at the pharmacy

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - When Lindsay Shrewsberry injured her back in a jet ski accident, her doctor prescribed the drug Percocet to help ease the pain.  But when Lindsay got home and popped the pill container, she suspected she got shorted at the Pharmacy. Sure enough, the pill count was way off.  Instead of 40 Percocets, the nursing student says she only got 30.

"When you counted them, what did you think"? I asked.  "I thought it must have been a mistake," answered Lindsay.

Was it a mistake?  Did someone miscount?  Or worse, did someone at the pharmacy help themselves to the high-powered pills, which contain the opioid oxycodone?  The Kamm's Corners Walgreens, which filled the prescription, started an internal investigation.  Walgreens won't comment on what they may or may not have found, so we have no idea what actually happened to the missing pills.

Lindsay also  tried to file an incident report with Cleveland police.  She said the officer told her he, too, had the same experience at his pharmacy.  But since Lindsay purchased the pills from Walgreens, the store is the victim.  Lindsay is quick to point out that she IS a victim since she had to endure several days of severe back pain when the prescription prematurely ran out.

'I'm not the victim here'

Prescription theft is on the rise both locally and nationally.  According to published reports, the Drug Enforcement Administration recently investigated pill theft, involving tens of thousands of dollars at several area pharmacies, including two CVS's in Cleveland, a Giant Eagle in Brooklyn, and a Walgreens in Cleveland Heights.  Across the country, about one-third of all thefts can be traced to pharmacy techs, who worked under licensed Pharmacists.  The Cleveland 19 investigative team found 21 pharmacy tech theft cases in the Cleveland area over the past two years.  Yet Ohio is one of just eight states where pharmacy techs aren't licensed, or even registered.

State Sen. John Eklund hopes to change all that.  "Look, the pharmacy techs have access to the drugs, right?  They can put them in vials, they can put them into pill boxes.  They can set them up for distribution to the patient." The lawmaker is the sponsor of Senate Bill 319, which would require background checks and ongoing training for pharmacy techs.

"There is a way to stop it," said Eklund.  "And that is to get the folks registered and make sure we know who's out there doing this, we know that they're adequately trained, we know that if they've done something wrong in the past, we're not going to allow them near these drugs.

When the Ohio Pharmacy Board finds pharmacists stealing prescription drugs, the cases are often turned over to the local county prosecutor.  Same goes for the Medical and Nursing Boards, after ruling on cases involving prescription theft.  But since pharmacy techs aren't licensed, they're seldom prosecuted.

"I know as a nurse, if you're caught stealing narcotics or anything your license is pulled," said Lindsay.  "You are fired and you are prosecuted.  I don't know why it should be any different for anyone behind the pharmacy.

Eklund said even when one of Ohio's 42,000 pharmacy techs is fired for theft, there's a good chance they could end up working behind the counter, right down the street.  "It's awful easy for these folks, if they're bad actors, to get caught doing something wrong in the pharmacy, get fired and they go get hired by another pharmacy, without disclosing the fact that they've had these legal issues in the past."

So where do the pills end up?  "That is part of the problem.  We don't know, do we?" answered Eklund with his own question.  "They wind up being melted and injected in somebody's bloodstream, they wind up being sold, they wind up being distributed at parties where young people are taking pills.  This is a terrible situation.  Once they are out of the pharmacy, they are completely out of our statewide database for keeping track of where prescriptions are going and who's using them."

'We don't know' 

We'll probably never know what happened to Lindsay's prescription.  But she does have some advice to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone in the future.  "Have them count the pills in front of you.  At the counter.  Have them count them in front of you before you leave the store."

While Walgreens won't discuss Lindsay's case, it does encourage anyone who's prescription comes up short, to return the pill container to the store location they got it from, and Walgreens will investigate it.


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