Addicted pharmacists find road back behind the counter - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

POLL: Addicted pharmacists find road back behind the counter

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

Pharmacists can rattle them off the top of their heads, familiar polysyllabic terms, Phendimetrazine, Adder, Hydrocarbon, Boycotting, Dilaudid, Morphine, Methadone, Codeine, drugs frequently abused by the public - and by their colleagues, fellow pharmacists.

"It could happen to anybody and nobody's immune," said Huntsville pharmacist Darden Heritage. "It's especially disturbing when it's somebody who's working in that environment, which makes it so much easier to get, as opposed to having to go out and buy it on the street."

Heritage is CEO of Star Market and Pharmacy and he reports seeing pharmacists that work for him slip into the trap of drug dependency.

"You become a different person," he said. "They're out of it, basically. They're in a euphoric state, so they're not really making good sense. They talk slow, slurred speech - that type of thing."

The Alabama Board of Pharmacy reports that, out of almost 18,000 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in the state, it has 104 pharmacists and 27 technicians who are at some level of officially approved recovery for substance abuse.

Pharmacists or techs found to be filching pills for the purpose of selling them can be permanently banned from the industry.  But for those found to have a real clinical dependency, a drug problem may not be a career killer. They can get their licenses back, and get back into the business of dispensing drugs, if,  and this is a big "if," they sign on for the Board of Pharmacy's wellness program and follow it.

"We believe that it shouldn't be a death sentence and that everyone deserves a second chance," said Donnie Calhoun, president of the Board of Pharmacy.  "When someone in pharmacy who has gone through six or eight years of pharmacy school, that's a health care professional, we don't want them to lose the ability to practice their profession forever."

Pharmacy practitioners with dependency issues must surrender their licenses and, at their own expense, check into inpatient rehab at an approved facility like Bradford Health Services or University of Alabama Birmingham, then go into intensive outpatient treatment too.

They can then get their licenses back on a probationary basis for a period of 5 years during which they must:

  • Get regular counseling and go to meetings with Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Caduceus, a group dedicated to recovering health care workers.
  • Limit the hours they work, only 20 hours a week for the first month, 30 hours a week for the second, and no more than a maximum of 40 hours after that.
  • Get any medications they may need themselves from only one pharmacy and only one doctor.  That's to prevent "doctor shopping" a practice whereby patients exceed recommended doses by getting prescriptions from multiple doctors.
  • And accept frequent random drug tests.

"Any time we suspect there's a problem, we can do a drug test, right then and there," said Calhoun.  "And if the employee refuses, then they automatically get terminated on the spot." It's a regimen Calhoun says should reassure pharmacy customers. "If somebody goes the complete program, there's nothing they should be worried about."

Customers, however, may not actually find out.

For pharmacists or techs in the wellness program applying for pharmacy jobs, full disclosure is mandatory. But for their potential employers, it's optional.

Darden Heritage sees a privacy issue.

"If somebody's gone through the whole program," he said, "that's not anybody's business. I think that's a personal issue that they had a demon they conquered."

The Board of Pharmacy says its records are open and anyone can call, with questions about a pharmacist, or to report one.

The head of Alabama's wellness program, Dr. Michael Garver, says it does get results, with a relapse rate of 5 percent, compared to 12 percent for comparable programs nationwide.

Pharmacy professionals said the stakes are stark.

"I had some that went back into [drug abuse] and those people, a lot of times, ended up taking their lives," recalled Heritage.

"You have the keys to the candy store when it comes to drugs. We're the keepers of all the medication," said Calhoun. "And they could lose their license forever if they screw up again."

Copyright 2012 WAFF. All rights reserved.

Alabama Board of Pharmacy

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