A CVS store. Photo by Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle, States Newsroom.
Things grew so bad at one severely understaffed CVS store in 2021 that a technician was accosted by irate customers in the parking lot after she helped close up.
The Canton, Ohio store was overwhelmed as its limited workforce tried to give COVID tests, COVID and flu shots and dispense medicine. Just a few years before, aggressively expanding CVS absorbed prescriptions from two nearby stores without adding much in the way of personnel, a former employee said.
To cope during the 2021 pandemic, the CVS closed its inside pharmacy window, and told patients to use its drive-through pharmacy. About 7:30 p.m. it sent a technician outside with the unwelcome news for people in the snaking line of cars that the pharmacy had to close in 90 minutes and some of the patients may well have to come back the next day.
Customers were already frustrated. The Canton CVS store was so deep in the weeds that it was almost two weeks behind filling prescriptions in early September 2021.
During this period, Haille Stanick, the technician, walked out after closing one evening in her scrubs, making her easily recognizable as a pharmacy employee.
“I was cornered at my car by about three or four patients, all very angry, asking me what’s going on with their medications,” said Stanick, who explained that she understood their anger, but also that she felt threatened. “One gentleman was trying to get antibiotics for his son and he was very, very upset.”
Stanick, who no longer works for CVS, testified Tuesday at the first of as many as a dozen possible disciplinary proceedings as the Ohio Board of Pharmacy examines whether CVS has staffed its pharmacies enough to keep customers safe. The board could levy punishments ranging from small fines to revocation of stores’ licenses.
CVS has claimed that delays in filling prescriptions, improper accounting for controlled substances, adulterated or expired medicines on its shelves and a few cases of improperly filled prescriptions were “isolated incidents.”
But Board of Pharmacy inspectors found problems related to understaffing at at least 10 CVS stores in Ohio. And, after the Capital Journal in July first reported on the problems, patients as well as current and former CVS employees in numerous states said the issues exist far beyond the Buckeye State.
After months of delays, Tuesday marked the beginning of the hearing into problems at CVS store 2063 in Canton. Kristina Dahmann, an attorney for CVS, told the board that the problems found at the Canton store had to do with the difficult special circumstances imposed by the covid pandemic and that the problems were solved later.
“The rules for operations of a pharmacy predate COVID 19,” she said. “This is a period of time when COVID 19 was very real and had a definite impact on pharmacy operations despite all of the work that they did to assist Ohioans.”
However, Board of Pharmacy inspectors have continued to cite other CVS stores well after the brunt of the pandemic had passed, including late last year and early this year.
On Tuesday afternoon, Board of Pharmacy inspector Kimberly Hollingshead said she visited the Canton CVS on Sept. 13, 2021 after receiving a customer complaint.
Pharmacy workers were so overwhelmed that it took them 15 minutes just to notice her standing there. The door to the pharmacy was improperly propped open and bins containing controlled substances were within reach of patrons of the store, she said.
“Anybody could have just pushed that door open and come into the pharmacy,” Hollingshead said.
The air conditioning was broken, a freezer storing vaccines had been improperly placed outside the pharmacy, and a refrigerator containing medicine inside the pharmacy wasn’t cold enough, she said.
“We were told (by staff) they had been begging for assistance and they were told no,” Hollingshead said.
To make things worse, the phone system was down that day. So for thousands of prescriptions, processing had started, insurance had been billed and nobody could call in to have those scripts moved and billed at another store.
Nicole Lewis, the pharmacist in charge at the store until June 20, 2021, said things weren’t helped by the fact that it had absorbed two nearby pharmacies’ prescriptions a few years earlier and only added a little staff. One was part of the Ritzman chain, which CVS bought out in 2019, and another belonged to Rite Aid, which last month filed for bankruptcy.
“There was a great influx of patients,” Lewis said, explaining that her CVS store went from handling about 1,800 prescriptions a week to handling about 2,500 after absorbing the Ritzman and Rite Aid patients.
Asked if CVS added enough staff to handle the additional business, Lewis said, “There was some accommodation. My personal opinion would be that it was not enough accommodation.”
Hollingshead, the Board of Pharmacy inspector, said that after she sent CVS a letter notifying the company of problems she found on Sept. 13, 2021, she found a marked improvement on a follow-up visit on Sept. 20, 2021. But when she made a follow-up call at the end of the following month, she was told that all of the staff who were present for the initial inspection had quit or transferred and that the pharmacy was now a month behind filling prescriptions.
Stanick, the technician at the store, described other problems.
“We were very, very short staffed,” she said. “Very far behind.”
And then something that’s never supposed to happen, did. A patient who had a script for a cholesterol drug got a hypnotic sleeping medication instead, Stanick said. Fortunately, the mistake was caught, but Stanick said the patient could have unwittingly taken the drug before driving.
Hollingshead, the inspector, said the mistake was never reported to the Board of Pharmacy.
With $2.3 billion in profits in the third quarter, CVS continues to boast to shareholders about its financial performance. But it apparently doesn’t want current and former employees to talk to state regulators about what goes on in its pharmacies.
It filed motions to quash Board of Pharmacy subpoenas for those employees to testify in this week’s proceedings.
The motions failed. But Stanick, who now lives in Florida, said that CVS attorney Dahmann called her and said that since Stanick now lives out of state, she doesn’t have to respond to a subpoena from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy.
Dahmann “said, ‘Hey, you don’t live in Ohio anymore, so this doesn’t really count toward you,'” Stanick said.
The hearing continues Wednesday morning.
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