Walgreens Fire

Firefighters responded to a fire at Walgreens in Manchester on Sept. 14.

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MANCHESTER — When Walgreens Pharmacy at 4993 Main St. caught fire on Sept. 14 of last year, the company waited two months to tell the state Office of Professional Regulation that the business was closed indefinitely.

But in the meantime, it continued billing customers for prescriptions and refills they could not obtain, state regulators alleged in a blistering complaint seeking discipline up to revoking the company’s Vermont license.

The complaint, issued by the state Office of Professional Regulation on June 21, also alleges a serious medical mistake in Manchester: A refill five times the prescribed dosage that led to hallucinations and other complications for an area youth.

According to the complaint, in February the pharmacy incorrectly filled a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication with doses of 50 mg per pill instead of 10 mg. The increase in dosage led to symptoms including “shaky hands, blurred vision, nausea, balance issues, hallucinations and high blood pressure.” Those symptoms continued for days after the error was discovered, and prevented the student from attending class, the complaint said.

The pharmacist indicated the 50 mg bottle was in the wrong location, and that rather than scan each bottle, the technician scanned the same bottle five times, the complaint states.

Another allegation against the Manchester store claimed that it did not submit a patient’s vaccine information to the state Health Department after they received a COVID booster.

SERIOUS ALLEGATIONS

The allegations were filed June 21. Under the statute, Walgreens has 20 days to respond to the allegations, which the Office of Professional Regulation will then be asked to prove before the state Board of Pharmacy.

Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens, operates 32 stores in Vermont, accounting for more than 25 percent of the state’s pharmacies, according to the complaint. That also includes locations in Brattleboro, Bennington, Bellows Falls and Wilmington.

The company — the second-largest pharmacy chain in the nation — declined comment on the allegations.

“We won’t be making any statements at this time,” Fraser Engerman, Walgreens’ senior director of external relations, said in an email last week.

The 40-page complaint alleges that the company unreasonably restricted consumer access to medication by closing stores without notice; that it failed to comply with federal and state professional standards; and that it engaged in “conduct of a character likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public.”

“Lack of adequate pharmacy staff resulted in over 325 days in which unexpected and unscheduled Walgreens retail pharmacy closures occurred throughout the state between July 2020 and April 2022, leaving thousands of patients without access to prescription medications,” the complaint said.

The complaint further alleges Walgreens “failed to comply on an egregious scale” with state law by operating stores without a pharmacist-manager present, including locations in Bellows Falls and on Canal Street in Brattleboro.

It also alleges that the company failed to identify or address “conditions that interfere with a pharmacist’s ability to practice with competency and safety or create an environment that jeopardizes patient care” by failing to mandate rest periods.

The state complaint also alleges that Walgreens’ computer system continued to order refills and charge customers; insurance for medications they could not access because the store was closed. That led to customers scrambling to find another pharmacy that would fill the script — and in some cases, led to customers paying out of pocket at significant expense.

MANCHESTER WOES

The Manchester store, which was a Rite-Aid Pharmacy until 2019, closed unexpectedly from Sept. 4 through Sept. 9, 2021, according to the compliant. A sign indicated the store’s computer server was down, the store was “closed until further notice,” and customers should call the Bennington or Rutland locations.

When the store reopened, “all patient prescriptions in the ‘will call’ category were changed in the system to a status that indicated the prescriptions had been delivered. This systemic malfunction created further delay for patients.”

But a bigger inconvenience was just around the corner.

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When a fire struck the building on Sept. 14. — a calamity that brought about three dozen firefighters to the scene from multiple towns — Walgreens “failed to notify the Board of Pharmacy of this unplanned and indefinite closing within 48 hours,” and failed to notify the public as to its intentions and the location of future prescription files, the complaint states.

But even though the doors were closed, the billing computers were running.

Walgreens did not deactivate automatic processing for patient refills or new prescriptions for existing patients after the fire, and continued to “automatically process insurance billing for medication prescriptions the store could not fill and dispense to patients because it was closed,” the complaint says.

This “created significant barriers for patients to get their medications elsewhere, including patients having to pay out-of-pocket,” the complaint alleges. It claims at least 14 patients, some with significant medical conditions, experienced delays in receiving medication.

The company finally told the state on Nov. 8 that its Manchester location was closed, and that it hoped to re-open the week of Dec. 15. It did not tell the state that it reopened on Dec. 11.

The Manchester Walgreens was closed again between Jan. 9 to 13, and posted a sign directing patients to contact the Rutland location, the complaint said.

It was during that closure that Town Manager John O’Keefe wrote the Vermont Office of Professional Regulation seeking answers.

“Needless to say, a pharmacy is an essential or critical service. With only two pharmacies in the region, having one close multiple times and for months has a very big impact on the community,” O’Keefe told regulators. “The on-again, off-again status of the store is frustrating Manchester and Northshire residents, and having a real impact on the health of residents of the area.”

LOCAL REACTION

News of the complaint against Walgreens, posted on the Journal’s Facebook page, led to responses from area residents describing their problems dealing with the pharmacy giant.

“Doesn’t shock me. They claimed to have given me a refill when they did not,” Taylor Greason wrote. “[They] charged my insurance, I was unable to get the script refilled and had to go through hoops to prove I wasn’t lying and then had to pay out of pocket for this medication which was $150. They have also given me the wrong amount several times and accused me of taking medication out in my car. … Their license should absolutely be revoked.”

Another Facebook user, Krystyne Healy, said that the Manchester location had filled a script for her daughter, then notified her that someone else had picked it up.

“They never fixed it with our insurance … and Walgreens can’t tell me where that month’s worth of medication went,” Healy wrote. “It wasn’t on the shelf, and they claimed someone from either Bennington Walgreens or Rutland Walgreens went and picked it up and when I called both of those locations, they said no one went to Manchester Walgreens to pick up meds so who knows where they went. That’s why we switched.”

When Walgreens’ repeated closures impacted patients, many voted with their feet — and their prescriptions, taking their business to The Pharmacy-Northshire on Ways Lane.

The business, the Manchester branch of Bennington-based The Pharmacy, saw a 50 percent increase in customers during Walgreens’ months-long closure between September and December 2021, manager Diane Harrington told the Journal in January. To meet the need, the pharmacy borrowed technicians from its sister business and promoted its free delivery service, given the limitations of its parking lot.

The Department of Professional Regulation, which operates under the Secretary of State’s Office, conducted the investigation and filed the complaint.

Walgreens’ license to operate in Vermont expires July 31, 2023. The state asked that the Board of Pharmacy “revoke, suspend, reprimand, condition or otherwise discipline” Walgreens’ license to operate in the state.

“Pharmacies play a critical role in the health care of Vermonters, who deserve safe and reliable access to the important medications they depend on, Secretary of State Jim Condos said in a statement. “Many local pharmacists and pharmacy technicians work diligently and with the care of their customers at the forefront of their work.

“Before an enforcement action is final the state must prove the allegations in the specification of charges before the Board of Pharmacy. This can take time to complete,” Condos said.

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-447-7567, ext. 119.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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