CVS pharmacy: Help, hindrance, or killing field?

Mistakes, erratic closings, overworked pharmacists, stress

Need a prescription filled in Floyd? Don’t try to do it at CVS. The pharmacy there is closed for the second straight weekend and was shuttered for four of the past seven days. Pharmacists at the vast drug retail chain are walking away from their jobs in disgust and say those who get prescriptions filled there are taking a big risk in their health and perhaps their lives.

“The sheer number of people who go home and cry because of the pressures they’re under — it’s unbelievable,” Michelle Harmon, a former CVS pharmacist in the Hampton Roads region tells the Virginia Mercury. She is also part of a Facebook group for mothers in the industry. “You’re so mentally drained you don’t have time for your family. I was just existing — going to work, coming home, doing whatever I could to hit the numbers so my patients were taken care of.”

Virginia’s Board of Pharmacy fined one CVS store in Virginia $427,000 after producing a 600+ plus page report of violations and shoddy safety practices at a single location.

“A staff pharmacist stated hours had been cut to the point where she didn’t know how the pharmacy was supposed to function,” Mykl Egan, the board’s discipline case manager, said in his report. “A fourth pharmacist described the pharmacy as a ‘sweatshop.’”

The Mercury report continues:

Both Harmon and another former CVS pharmacist, who requested anonymity because she feared professional repercussions, say understaffing has been a growing problem at CVS for years. It only became worse with the arrival of COVID-19, they said. 

Before the pandemic, the company had steadily been reducing the number of hours that pharmacy techs, a non-salaried position, were allowed to work every week. The former pharmacist said it was clear some stores didn’t have enough staff to meet the demands of the job, but that the stress was “manageable” until cases of the virus began to spread.

“Then COVID just made things impossible,” she said. “That tipped it over the edge.” Both pharmacists worked at high-volume stores, where they’d fill anywhere between 500 and 1,000 prescriptions a day. Harmon said her pharmacy sometimes received up to 10 phone calls at a time, which employees were expected to answer by the second ring. The pharmacies also ran drive-throughs and provided in-store services, including flu vaccines and counseling patients on their medications.

Reports The New York Times:

For Alyssa Watrous, the medication mix-up meant a pounding headache, nausea and dizziness. In September, Ms. Watrous, a 17-year-old from Connecticut, was about to take another asthma pill when she realized CVS had mistakenly given her blood pressure medication intended for someone else.

The problems are not confined to just CVS. The Times report continues:

Edward Walker, 38, landed in an emergency room, his eyes swollen and burning after he put drops in them for five days in November 2018 to treat a mild irritation. A Walgreens in Illinois had accidentally supplied him with ear drops — not eye drops.

For Mary Scheuerman, 85, the error was discovered only when she was dying in a Florida hospital in December 2018. A Publix pharmacy had dispensed a powerful chemotherapy drug instead of the antidepressant her doctor had prescribed. She died about two weeks later.

The people least surprised by such mistakes are pharmacists working in some of the nation’s biggest retail chains.

In letters to state regulatory boards and in interviews with The New York Times, many pharmacists at companies like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens described understaffed and chaotic workplaces where they said it had become difficult to perform their jobs safely, putting the public at risk of medication errors.

They struggle to fill prescriptions, give flu shots, tend the drive-through, answer phones, work the register, counsel patients and call doctors and insurance companies, they said — all the while racing to meet corporate performance metrics that they characterized as unreasonable and unsafe in an industry squeezed to do more with less.

“I am a danger to the public working for CVS,” one pharmacist wrote in an anonymous letter to the Texas State Board of Pharmacy in April.

“The amount of busywork we must do while verifying prescriptions is absolutely dangerous,” another wrote to the Pennsylvania board in February. “Mistakes are going to be made and the patients are going to be the ones suffering.”

One former CVS employee at the Floyd store says she quit because “somebody was going to die from our mistakes” if something is not done. Another suggested moving any prescriptions to the independent Pharm House in Floyd.

“Chains can’t cope,” she adds.

In an emailed response, CVS called the reports about problems “outdated and inaccurate,” adding: “It should be noted that the underlying complaints from a former employee are nearly two years old and this store location has since had a change in management.”

Try telling that to those in Floyd who came to the CVS this weekend and found it closed.

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© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse