By Emmy Weist
Elm Staff Writer
In 2018, Alton James picked up his 85-year-old mother’s prescription from a Publix supermarket pharmacy in Lakeland, Fla. Mary Scheuerman was prescribed a mild antidepressant by her doctor. James gave his mother her pill every day, as usual — but after six days, she turned pale, suffered a serious drop in blood pressure, and was rushed to the hospital. James had not been giving his mother her prescribed antidepressants, but rather methotrexate, a powerful chemotherapy drug that was most certainly not meant for his cancer-free mother. She died five days later.
In the past week, stories like this are coming to light as The New York Times and a handful of smaller publications circulate testimonies from pharmacists revealing dangerous working conditions as a result of intense corporate expectations. The result are dangerous — and sometimes deadly — mistakes when filling prescriptions.
Despite state pharmaceutical boards being aware of the rampant issues in these pharmacies, there has been no systemic action taken to regulate workplace conditions and prevent tragedies like the death of Sheuerman.
Major chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens are speaking out against “understaffed and chaotic workplaces” and outrageous corporate expectations that make the pharmacy “absolutely dangerous” to the public, as recounted by CVS employees in anonymous appeals to state pharmacy boards. Prescription mistakes are not the only danger — the American Psychiatric Association has stated that CVS routinely ignores explicit instruction to dispense limited quantities of certain medications to mental health patients.
Instead, CVS pharmacists are habitually pushed to provide three-month supplies, which could quite possibly be used as a means of suicide by patients with access to lethal amounts of their medication. The company’s motivation is clear enough: the more pills that can be sold at once, the more money the pharmacy makes.
As one anonymous pharmacist stated in a response to the Missouri Board of Pharmacy’s survey on company working conditions, “we are afraid to speak up and lose our jobs. PLEASE HELP.”
Distraught pharmacists have been flooding state review boards with letters, detailing outrageous workplace expectations aimed at reducing the number of employees on a shift, like being expected to give flu vaccinations, tend to drive-through windows, manage the register, answer phone calls, counsel patients, interact with doctors and insurance companies, and accurately handle and distribute drugs within the same shift, often with few or no coworkers assisting. The safe handling and distributing of prescription-grade medications requires focus and order—something that seems near impossible when the pharmacist’s time is split between so many tasks.
This trend is not isolated to one or two states. Dozens of state boards have received similar frantic appeals, with employees — both current and former — afraid for the safety of the patients their pharmacies serve. Reports of patients receiving incorrect prescriptions, while often settled privately with confidentiality agreements, are prevalent across the country. CVS error forms for pharmacists, The New York Times revealed, ask whether or not the patient in question is a “media threat.” Who knows how many more patients signed away their voices before revealing the dangers they are exposed to?
All of this begs the question: if state boards know there are rampant issues with safety standards in the pharmacies where most Americans purchase their medications, is something not being done by state governments to ensure proper regulation? The short answer: no, they are not doing enough to incite any real change.
State governments have stated that they have little ability to regulate how companies operate, despite concerns. Between the lack of numeric data on prescription errors and pharmacists terrified to speak up due to the risk of retaliation, there is little for state boards to operate on officially.
Lack of official ability is not the only thing impeding change — numerous state pharmacy boards allow company representatives to hold seats. Florida, for example, has a nine-person board, including a CVS lawyer and Walgreens director of pharmacy affairs.
There are reports that a handful of states are attempting to alter company behavior behind closed doors through private meetings with chain brands. Is that really enough, considering what is at stake and what has already been lost? People are being hurt by pharmacists desperate to keep their jobs and unable to fix the unsafe conditions they’re being forced into.
Considering the makeup of said boards, of course no meaningful change is happening. The necessary change to protect patients from medication mix-ups that can and do cause irreparable damage would financially inconvenience the companies some of those board representatives work for. Is it not enough that 1/4 of Americans cannot afford their prescriptions? Now, those who can have to face the very real risk of being literally poisoned by corporate greed.
Systemic change in how state governments regulate pharmaceutical sales is undeniably necessary. The only question is how many more people will have to suffer before our government bodies are forced to take public safety more seriously than the economic interests of big business.