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Behind the Story: Maine pharmacists get licenses despite history of drug abuse

Would you feel safe if your pharmacist had lost his license because of drug abuse or theft, yet had regained it and was dispensing your prescriptions? What about if he had lost his license twice?

Naomi Schalit and John Christie of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting found that since 2003, thirteen pharmacists with histories of drug abuse in Maine were allowed to practice despite having previously lost their licenses. The discovery was part of a broad examination of Maine’s Board of Pharmacy discipline records that resulted in a two-part series published in September. The project was led by Naomi.

Among Naomi’s especially colorful findings: a pharmacist who prescribed Vicodin for his bulldog; a man who, having lost his license twice, was found snorting cocaine mixed with other narcotics in the medical storage room; a pharmacist who let his mother – not a licensed pharmacist – take over the pharmacy for him and dispense prescriptions.

How did Naomi stumble on such gold?

Naomi calls it “Recreational data cruising.” Taking a break from another project, she decided to look through the Maine Board of Pharmacy’s disciplinary records – all available online – looking for potential stories. What she found intrigued her. Much of the public is aware of potential problems with doctors and nurses, Naomi said, but pharmacists are usually overlooked, she thought. That, in addition to the interesting accounts she found in the records, prompted her to take the next step.

Naomi decided to focus on thefts and misfills because they accounted for the disciplinary cases. To deal with all 236 records, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting paid a Columbia University graduate student to take key information out of each record and plug it into a spreadsheet. The two key types of document were the ‘consent agreement’, in which the licensee admitted to the violation and agreed to the punishment, and the ‘decision and order,’ in which the licensee contests the board’s charges and the board then determines how to discipline them, if at all.

It took the student two weeks to fill in the fields, which included the licensee’s name, profession (pharmacy or pharmacy technician), pharmacy board actions, basis for the actions, whether or not the licensee was fined, and the date the case was concluded.

The data showed that in the last ten years, 57 pharmacists and pharmacist technicians lost their licenses for stealing drugs from pharmacy shelves and from patients. Thirteen pharmacists were allowed to get new licenses, and five of those went on to lose their licenses again for drug abuse or theft. One regained his license twice.

With the core data for the story in hand, Naomi wanted to get the national context for the story. But finding it was surprisingly hard: The Drug Enforcement Administration claimed it did not have numbers on how many pharmacy drugs were stolen during break-ins and armed robberies versus by how many were stolen by employees. Numerous requests for the data yielded the same result, until Naomi found a DEA powerpoint presentation online that had the numbers she needed but only for Illinois. She got the figures she needed after she told the DEA records custodian about the presentation.

Naomi also got lucky getting a pharmacist on the record. She had tried to get in touch with each of pharmacists that had lost a license multiple times, but none returned her calls. But two hours before sending the story to the Center’s media partners, the pharmacist with twice-revoked licenses called and spoke candidly about his drug addiction.

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