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Cancer patients being denied medications by pharmacists

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Cancer patients being denied medications by pharmacists

By Darcy Spears. CREATED May 15, 2014

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- When it comes to denying legitimate patients their prescribed pain meds, how far is too far? Contact 13 has uncovered another group of patients in critical need.

One cancer patient was denied her pain medication shortly before she died.

When Rose Chamberlain passed away her husband, Carl, lost the love of his life, "My wife was all I had."

The two met in Santa Barbara, "She was walking down the street. She smiled at me. Wow. She had me right then."

But in 2006 Rose was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in remission for a long time, but about two years ago the battle returned, "It came back and it was stage 4."

The couple loved to travel the world together but Rose's last months on earth were a world of pain.

"I was holding her hand. We were in the room alone, and she opened her eyes and looked at me."

On Sunday, March 2, Rose passed away. Carl recalls that day and told us through tears, "She's the luckiest person in this room. No more pain. She closed her eyes."

Carl is the one in pain now as he looks back on the unnecessary agony Rose suffered in those final months, "She would scream in pain sometimes at night."

Oxycodone was prescribed to manage Rose's pain, but Carl said several pharmacies refused refills.

"I guess some of these people make judgments about whoever's walking in to get a prescription. They're too suspicious."

Rose was just one of many patients caught in the battle against prescription drug abuse. Pharmacies across the country implemented stricter policies on strong pain killers after the DEA hit national retailers with heavy fines last summer.

"Now they're hitting us where it really hurts, which is the patients," said Dr. James Sanchez an Oncologist with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada. He's seen several cancer patients experience this problem.

"This is a totally new wrinkle," he said.

He and his colleagues don't know what to make of pharmacies denying their pain pill prescriptions. After all, he explains, opiates were designed to treat cancer patients, "In order to provide them with a good quality of life, we have to provide them with relief of their pain."

Quality of life is all Carl wanted for his wife last Christmas, "All Christmas Eve and all Christmas Day, she was in pain, screaming in pain."

On Christmas Eve, he went to Walgreens on Farm and Durango, "And they refused me. I went back 2 or 3 times."

That's because he kept getting different answers from different staff members but ultimately, no relief. With no meds to manage Rose's pain, their holiday became a nightmare.

"They don't really care, you know."

Rose finally got her pain pills after the holiday, but with the next refill it was more denials and delays at other Walgreens locations, CVS and Target.

"When people refused to call the doctor, when they lie to your face, that hurts a lot," said Carl as tears ran down his face. "Especially when you know your wife is dying and you just want her to have a little relief from the pain. Just wanted to be treated with dignity and respect."

David Wuest is Deputy Secretary of the Nevada State Board of Pharmacy, "Right now there's less meds being manufactured. There's less meds that are being shipped to pharmacies. And there are patients that unfortunately, that may be going without medicines."

Wuest said reducing the supply is one of the ways to fight prescription drug abuse and offers this perspective.

"We have about 5 percent of the world's population and we take about 80 percent of the opiates that are manufactured in the world."

But he sympathizes for patients like Rose Chamberlain?

"I think you're bringing it to light, an excellent problem, and they're going to try to fix it," said Wuest.

He said the legislature, governor's office, State Board of Pharmacy, the medical community and law enforcement  are getting together to figure out what the fix is.

Until that is found, Carl said everyone can learn something from Rose, "Rose believed that people were more important than policies or rules and regulations."

If you're being denied or delayed, the Board of Pharmacy recommends you go back to your doctor. Also, while under state law the board cannot require a pharmacist to fill a prescription, they will try to help patients having problems.

You can call the state Board of Pharmacy at (800) 364-2081.

We contacted the pharmacy chains where Carl said he ran into these problems. Both Walgreens and CVS refused our requests for an on-camera interview.

Walgreens referred us to a previous statement provided when Contact 13 started this investigation:

"With the sharp rise in the abuse of prescription painkillers in recent years, health care professionals in all practices are continuously striving to find better ways of ensuring those medications are used only for legitimate medical purposes. We are working to ensure our patients continue to have access to the medications they need while fulfilling our role in reducing the potential abuse of controlled substances. We have over recent months taken a number of steps to provide additional guidance and training to our pharmacies on the proper handling of controlled substances. Because of the legal requirements placed on pharmacists to verify that controlled substance prescriptions are issued for a legitimate medical purpose, pharmacists may need to gather additional patient information from their prescribing physician's office. This diligence may take extra time.

For example, under our good faith dispensing policy, pharmacists may determine that they first need to check the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database for anything unusual. They may also decide to contact the prescribing doctor's office to verify the diagnosis and confirm that the patient has had a recent examination. Often, this information can be obtained from a member of the doctor's staff.

We firmly believe that addressing prescription drug abuse will require all parties - including leaders in the community, physicians, pharmacies, distributors and regulators - to play a role in finding practical solutions to combating abuse while balancing patient access to critical medication."

CVS provided the following response:

"Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the health care industry. As health care providers on the front lines of health care delivery, our pharmacists use their professional judgment when determining whether a prescription for a controlled substance was issued for a legitimate purpose, which is part of their professional responsibility under state and federal law.

Our pharmacists consider a variety of factors when evaluating a controlled substance prescription. These factors, along with a pharmacist’s professional judgment, help them to determine when it is necessary to verify information with a physician before filling a prescription for a controlled substance."

Target did not respond in time for this story.

The Drug Enforcement Agency also referred us to a previous statement:

"DEA communicates with all its registrants, including pharmacies, to help them understand the requirements of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and its implementing regulations when it comes to preventing the diversion of controlled substance prescription drugs (CSPDs).  DEA holds day-long regional Pharmacy Diversion Awareness Conferences on weekends throughout the year, including 14 conferences in 2013, for pharmacists to attend to be briefed and ask questions.  [We have not yet had one in Nevada, but last year we had 2 in California and 1 in New Mexico, and this summer we are holding conferences in Phoenix and SLC.  I haven’t seen the schedule for the whole year.]  DEA sets no quotas or limits on what pharmacies can dispense or what their distributors can provide them, but the CSA requires both pharmacies and distributors to know and communicate with their customers (in the pharmacies’ case, both patients and doctors) to help prevent diversion.  DEA sometimes has to take administrative action when this process breaks down."

If you're having problems with your prescriptions we want to know about. Email us at 13investigates@ktnv.com.

Contact 13 reached out to lawmakers since we started investigating this problem late last year. 

Governor Sandoval's office provided this statement:

"Abuse of pain medication is a growing national problem that affects all of society.  In Nevada, the Attorney General has already implemented the Substance Abuse Working Group.  In addition, Governor Sandoval was recently appointed by the National Governors Association to co-chair the Governors’ Policy Academy on Reducing Prescription Drug Abuse.  A major concern of these working groups is balancing the needs and concerns of patients who have legitimate prescriptions.  Through collaborative efforts, we hope to address the problems of prescription drug abuse in a thoughtful and effective manner."

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.