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Walgreens pharmacists now turning away some customers who need pain meds

Customers are speaking out about a new drug store policy exposed by Eyewitness News. They say Walgreens' new rules for dispensing prescription painkillers are prompting some pharmacists to go too far
Customers are speaking out about a new drug store policy exposed by Eyewitness News.

Customers are speaking out about a new drug store policy exposed by Eyewitness News. They say Walgreens' new rules for dispensing prescription painkillers are prompting some pharmacists to go way too far.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

INDIANAPOLIS - Some Walgreens customers are sharing painful stories about their recent trip to the drug store.

They say those routine visits to get pain medication were anything but routine, ending in humiliation, threats and accusations.

"I couldn't believe it. They actually threatened to call the cops," explained a Walgreens customer from Indianapolis. "I've been a loyal customer for a long time, and all of a sudden, I was told to leave the premises or the police would be called."

13 Investigates is calling the customer Robert.  That is not his real name but, like most of the customers who contacted WTHR for this story, he is worried that identifying him publicly will put him at increased risk for prescription drug theft because of medications he is taking. For that reason, WTHR has agreed not to identify him.

Robert was diagnosed five years ago with a devastating combination of multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and peripheral neuropathy. He has not lived a day pain-free since.

"I usually wake up around 3:30 in the morning with the sensation of someone stabbing me in the legs," he said. "It's like a Charley horse times ten. It feels like you're grabbing my muscles, twisting them with all your might while holding some type of hot coal underneath my legs. There's a horrible burning sensation."

Still in his 30s, the former mechanical engineer hasn't worked in years.

He can't.  His days are spent trying to survive unyielding pain.

His right leg is ravaged by disease, forcing him to use a walker to take slow, tedious steps from his car to the pharmacy counter.  That is where he gets a monthly supply of powerful painkillers oxycontin and oxycodone to battle his chronic pain. Both drugs are prescribed simultaneously by his doctor.  

"For the most part, this combination over the past few years is the only thing that has kept me from taking my life. Otherwise, there are days I've been ready to do it," he says, letting out a deep sigh.

Confrontation at the drug store

Robert had gotten his pain pills from the same Walgreens drug store for two years without incident.  When he recently went to get a refill, that changed.

He was told the drug store now had to verify his prescriptions by talking with his doctor -- and that could take up to five days. Since Robert had just one day of pain pills left (both his doctor and his insurance company prohibit him from getting his painkiller prescriptions filled early), the longtime Walgreens customer asked for his prescription back so he could take it to a different pharmacy.

The pharmacist refused. 

"He said, 'I've already started the process and now it's out of my hands. I am not giving it back to you,'" Robert recalls. "I felt kind of panicked and I told him, 'I don't think you can do that.' That's when he told me to leave or he'd call the police… I had no choice but to leave them there until he was able to fill them."

The pharmacy finally called to say it had received enough information to refill Robert's prescription, but that call didn't come for three and half days.  Robert says they were three of the longest days of his life.

"It was living hell. Living hell. I was in pretty bad shape and there was literally nothing I could do. I was out of medication and I couldn't even get out of bed. I was so sick, I had to send someone else to Walgreens to pick it up for me. The whole thing is just absurd."

Walgreens won't comment on Robert's case and declined to meet with WTHR to discuss its new policy.  

Walgreens pays $80 million fine

13 Investigates exposed that policy a few weeks ago.  It involves pharmacists calling your doctor's office to verify prescriptions and to check your detailed drug history before they will fill a prescription for certain types of medication.  Many local doctors tell WTHR they are now seeing a large increase in phone calls from Walgreens pharmacists, and some say the new policy is causing delays for patients who really need their pain pills.

"The pharmacy will call and further investigate. They'll say ‘Why is this patient getting this script? What's wrong with them? What's the diagnosis? How long are they going to be on it? How long have they been on it?'" explained Dr. Ed Kowlowitz, who runs the Center for Pain Management in Indianapolis. "They're not just filling scripts anymore."

Walgreens says its new policy is designed to curb prescription drug abuse, which is now a national epidemic.

But there's another reason for the new rules: Walgreens has no choice.

They are part of a new settlement agreement the company reached with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency after investigators in Florida found Walgreens had been blatantly violating federal law. Those investigators found Walgreens pharmacies repeatedly filled bogus prescriptions for pain pills, and many of those pills then ended up on the street.

Last month, Walgreens agreed to pay an $80 million fine for those violations. The settlement included a promise by Walgreens to take aggressive steps to better train its workers and to implement tougher standards to prevent prescription drug abuse. The crackdown has made Walgreens much more careful about filling prescriptions for painkillers and other types of highly-controlled medications.

But customers like Robert are now coming forward to say Walgreens is going way too far – and he is not alone.

More than a dozen people contacted 13 Investigates following our first investigation to share recent stories of being turned away by Walgreens without their pain medication.

"He basically called me an addict"

One of those patients – who WTHR is referring to as J.C. to help protect her identity – says she, too, had a terrible experience with a Walgreens pharmacist.

"I've been going to the same Walgreens for 8 years, so I was really surprised," she said.

J.C. suffers from thrombosis, a dangerous condition that fills her legs with blood clots.

"It's very painful. It's like sharp, shooting pains in my legs and foot," explained J.C. during a short interview in her dining room.  She then went to lie down on her living room couch because sitting or standing for more than 15 minutes causes her pain to get worse.

That pain is controlled by two different types of oxycodone. For years, she'd been getting her pain pills from a Walgreens near Lawrence.

"No problems. No questioned asked," she said. "Everyone in there knew me by my first name and I knew them."

Then, everything changed.

Just one day after Walgreens settled its $80 million federal complaint involving improper dispensing of pain medication, J.C. drove to her local Walgreens to get a monthly refill of her painkillers. That's when she learned her Walgreens pharmacist no longer wanted her business.

"They refused [to fill] it. He said, 'We suggest you take it to CVS. At this point we're just feeding an addiction.' He was very loud and it was right in the open when he basically called me an addict. At that point, I was just so upset I left," J.C. said.

Federal law does require pharmacists to take steps to ensure prescriptions are legitimate and prescribed for a justified medical purpose. But some Walgreens customers say their recent experiences suggest some Walgreens pharmacists are going to extremes.

"I feel they're playing doctor," said Robert.

"He was basically telling my doctor what to prescribe for me," J.C. agreed. "I'm a legitimate customer. I'm a legitimate patient. I have a real medical condition. I'm not some drug addict, and that's how he was treating me."

Doctors concerned too

Some doctors tell Eyewitness News they have concerns about how Walgreens is implementing its new policy and whether pharmacists are truly looking out for the best interest of patients.

"I think they're probably considering the impact on themselves and their ability to do business and their DEA license more, and not the patient," said Kowlowitz.

Dmitry Arbuck, a pain management specialist at Indiana Polyclinic in Carmel, believes pharmacists should ask customers questions to help identify signs of prescription drug abuse. But he worries that some innocent patients are getting caught in the middle.

"Good conscientious pharmacists will look into issues and deny medication to a patient they believe takes it inappropriately," he said.  "But if pharmacists just say ‘Good bye. I'm not giving you anything,' in my mind that is not good practice. They become an additional barrier between the patient and the medication they really need."

Most of the patients who contacted WTHR say they have transferred their prescriptions to different pharmacies, and they report no problems getting their prescriptions for pain medications filled elsewhere.

The customers do not plan to return to Walgreens.

"It's very upsetting to be treated this way," said J.C.  "And I don't believe for a second they were looking out for my best interest. If they were looking out for me and were concerned, why didn't they show concern two years ago when they started filling these same prescriptions?  It doesn't make sense. I think they're just trying to cover their own mistakes."

Walgreens sent WTHR the following statement to include in this report:

"With the sharp rise in the abuse of prescription painkillers in recent years, health care professionals in all practices are continuously striving to find better ways of ensuring those medications are used only for legitimate medical purposes. We are working to ensure our patients continue to have access to the medications they need while fulfilling our role in reducing the potential abuse of controlled substances.  We have recently taken a number of steps to provide additional guidance and training to our pharmacies on the proper handling of controlled substances.  Because of the legal requirements placed on pharmacists to verify that controlled substance prescriptions are issued for a legitimate medical purpose, pharmacists may need to gather additional patient information from their prescribing physician's office.  This diligence may take extra time.  For example, under our good faith dispensing policy, pharmacists may determine that they first need to check the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database (called INSPECT in Indiana) for anything unusual. They may also decide to contact the prescribing doctor's office to verify the diagnosis and confirm that the patient has had a recent examination. Often, this information can be obtained from a member of the doctor's staff.  Our good faith dispensing policy is intended to be used consistently by our pharmacists for each individual prescription to determine whether the doctor's office needs to be contacted. Our policy does not require prescriber contact for every prescription.  We firmly believe that addressing prescription drug abuse will require all parties – including leaders in the community, physicians, pharmacies, distributors and regulators – to play a role in finding practical solutions to combating abuse while balancing patient access to critical medication."

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