By Judy Foreman
You may be in for a shock if you try to get a prescription for any controlled substance – from Ambien to opioid pain relievers – filled at Walgreens anywhere around the country.
Walgreens recently announced what it calls a new “Good Faith Dispensing” policy under which the pharmacy giant – the largest in the nation – is suddenly requiring its pharmacists to take “additional steps” to verify prescriptions for controlled substances.
This process, the company says, “may, at times, require” the pharmacist to contact the prescribing doctor to make sure the diagnosis, the exact billing code, the expected length of therapy and “the previous medications/therapies tried and failed” are correct.
In plain English, this means that Walgreens pharmacists are going to call your doctor, or at least your doctor’s office, to see if your doctor did the right thing in giving you a prescription for pain relievers and other drugs. The policy is provoking distress and outrage among pain patients, physicians and others.
In a telephone conversation, a Walgreens spokesman denied that the aggressive new policy was specifically triggered by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s crackdown on the company in the wake of problems with infamous “pill mills” in Florida. Until recently, unscrupulous “patients” and unscrupulous doctors in Florida have colluded in diverting massive quantities of prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone (an ingredient in OxyContin) through fake clinics dubbed “pill mills.”
In June, Walgreens and the DEA announced an $80 million settlement to resolve the government’s charges that Walgreens failed to control the sales of opioid pain relievers in some of its stores.
The government said that distributors of pain relievers failed to monitor suspiciously large orders for opioids Necessary as that crackdown was, a presumably unintended result is that legitimate pain patients are finding it harder to get the medications they need.
Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin told me that he was not sure precisely when the company’s “Dear Valued Prescriber” letter spelling out the new policy went out, adding that he thought it went out in April or early summer. (There is no date on the letter itself). The date of the DEA settlement was June 11, 2013.
Although pain patient advocates worry most about getting prescriptions for opioid pain relievers, Polzin confirmed that the letter actually stipulates new procedures for all controlled substances. In theory at least, that could make it harder for patients to get prescriptions for other drugs such as Restoril, Halcion, Sonata, Ambien and Lunesta.
Asked why Walgreens is taking this action now, Polzin said, “There’s been, as is well known, a sharp rise in the abuse of prescription painkillers in recent years and health care professionals of all practices are being asked to find better ways to make sure those medications are used for legitimate purposes.”
Asked specifically if the $80 million settlement imposed by the DEA triggered the company’s actions, Polzin said, “We actually imposed our Good Faith Dispensing policy before that settlement. We have done a number of things before reaching the agreement with the DEA to make sure we were fulfilling the obligations for dispensing controlled substances and making sure that our training and pharmacy staff were where they needed to be.”
He acknowledged that the new policy may mean that getting prescriptions filled “could take extra time – it does require us at times to get information from physicians’ offices.”
Whatever the motivation by Walgreens, the American Medical Association is furious. In a resolution in late June, an AMA committee chaired by Iowa dermatologist Marta van Beek called the Walgreens’ policy a direct “intrusion into medical practice.”
As the AMA committee put it, “pharmacists are not and under no circumstances should be required to confirm the appropriateness of a prescription; this decision is a purely medical one, completely in the purview of the treating physician.” The policy “will be very disruptive to physicians’ practices, interrupting visits and procedures and delaying other patients’ care.” The Walgreens policy may also seriously delay “delivery of medications to all patients.”
Van Beek added, in an email to me, “The physician-patient relationship is focused on the patient’s disease and how best to treat it in the context of the patient’s health and social factors. A pharmacy does not have this perspective.”
US Representative Michelle L. Grisham, a Democrat from New Mexico and a former secretary of health in that state, is also worried that the Walgreens’ policy “is endangering the health and safety of patients by delaying the filling of opiate prescriptions.” The policy may force patients “to go to multiple pharmacies to fill prescriptions, which could put patients in jeopardy with state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, she said in a letter to the New Mexico Board of Pharmacy.
In a telephone conversation, Grisham went further: Walgreens “policy is very over-reaching..[they] are vilifying the patient, which is outrageous.”
Some pharmacists don’t seem to like the new Walgreens policy, either. On a website, one member of the group, speaking for himself, blogged that the policy as “the height of corporate self-interest.” That view does not reflect the policy of the society.
Pain patient Cindy Steinberg, national director of policy and advocacy at the Connecticut-based US Pain Foundation, acknowledges that “a pharmacist “is entitled to look for the authenticity of a prescription.” But, she told me, “this is now going over the line into judging the appropriateness of a prescription. That is outside pharmacy practice. They can’t question whether a physician can or should institute this therapy…“this is very harmful for people with pain who are simply trying to get their medications so they can have some quality of life.”
The new Walgreens policy is creating particular problems for pain patients in Florida. One South Florida chronic pain patient, Julee Payne, wrote me that she has filled her prescriptions with Walgreens for over 10 years. But now, she said, “we’re expected to drive around for hours to find a pharmacy who will/can fill our medications…”
The result of the new Walgreens policy, she said, is that pharmacists “have been given the absurd task of policing the doctors on top of everything else….It is truly a public health crisis here.”
Judy Foreman, a longtime syndicated health columnist, is the author of the forthcoming book “A Nation in Pain – Healing Our Biggest Health Problem,” from Oxford University Press.
Update from Judy Foreman: A previous version of this story incorrectly left the impression that the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists as a whole was highly critical of a new Walgreens’ policy called “Good Faith Dispensing.” That was in fact a view expressed in a blog by one individual member of the group posted on June 15, 2013 and does not represent the opinion of the organization as a whole; that opinion was expressed in an official blog on July 22, 2013. We regret the error.