Pharmacies Fear Lawsuits Over Drug Abuse

A petite 35-year old woman was a doctor’s office receptionist with a problem.

After purchasing nearly 4,500 doses of painkillers in one year, she got behind the wheel of a Dodge Durango on June 4, 2004 and weaved in and out of traffic before plowing into a man who had helped repair a flat tire on the side of a highway. The 21-year-old young man was killed at the scene. She also hit a 33-year-old man who was helping the other individual. He was injured. The female driver was not.

A lawsuit filed by the families of these afflicted men is pending in the Nevada Supreme Court. It charges that Wal-Mart Stores, CVS, and Walgreen Co. need to be held liable when they do nothing to curb prescription drug abuse.

It’s a precedent setting case that puts all pharmacies on alert. Typically pharmacies have been sued for providing the wrong prescription drug. The pharmacy industry predicts higher prices for all if litigation is allowed to hold them responsible for filling valid prescriptions.

It’s not unlike the situation with bartenders. They too can be held liable if a customer is served too much alcohol and doctors have been sued for failing to warn patients not to drive after taking certain medications.

Under Nevada law, pharmacies share prescription information among doctors, other pharmacists and law-enforcement officials in a database that is reported each month. It’s all intended to track potential drug abuse, such as that by Copening. It is reported to a Prescription Controller Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force which is supposed to send a form letter to the pharmacies the patient has visited to help get the patient into treatment after encouragement by the pharmacist. It sounds like a good intention, but has put pharmacists on the hot seat.

In this receptionist’s case, in June 2003, 14 pharmacies received letters that she had purchased 60 prescriptions, mostly for meds with hydrocodone. There are no notes about counseling her, in fact, she continued to buy quantities of hydrocodone as well as a muscle relaxer from numerous pharmacies. After the crash, law enforcement found 167 loose pills in her car.

She was charged with reckless driving while intoxicated and served nine months in jail for the fatal accident. The doctor who wrote many of her prescriptions had his license revoked.

After the pharmacy records came to light seven pharmacy chain owners were added as defendants.

A District Court Judge dismissed the pharmacies from the suit, saying the law was vague on what action, if any, they should have followed. The Nevada case is part of a broader movement to increase the responsibilities pharmacists have for dispensing drugs.

Even Florida in 2009 passed a prescription monitoring legislation to crack down on doctor-shopping for pharmaceuticals by creating a database of prescribers and patients. The Nevada Supreme court is listening to an appeal filed by the families of the dead and injured and should have a decision before the end of the year which, no doubt, is being closely watched by the pharmacy industry nationwide.