The new year was only two days old when western Montana courts got their first case involving an alleged pharmacy robbery.
It wouldn’t be the last.
That case involved a 22-year-old Missoula County man who admitted leaving Palmer’s Drug with 685 oxycodone tablets after telling employees he had a gun, according to court records.
A little more than two weeks later, in Flathead County, a Columbia Falls woman pleaded guilty to stealing prescription medications from the Whitefish drugstore where she’d worked as a pharmacist.
A month later, a Missoula man was charged with a felony after a friend allegedly called in a prescription for him for painkillers to the Osco Pharmacy on South Russell Street.
In March, a Washington man accused of robbing Walgreen’s at gunpoint led police on a high-speed chase; in April, a man was accused of robbing a Belgrade pharmacy – for the third time.
Drugstores and the pharmacists who work there are on the front lines of the war against illicit prescription drug use.
People hit them with fake prescriptions. Or present them with real ones obtained from several different doctors. They break in at night, sweep opiates from the shelves, and bolt. They even – worst case but hardly unheard of – stick guns in their faces and demand pills.
Recently, Corvallis Drug pharmacist Kyp Curtis watched a woman who’d just filled a prescription at his pharmacy step outside the store and sell her medication to someone else, in full view of the pharmacy’s window.
“You’d think they’d go around the block,” Curtis said. The pharmacy alerted authorities and the woman was arrested.
That’s why – despite lingering concerns about privacy – Curtis is largely grateful for Montana’s new prescription drug registry.
So is Ross Roadarmel, a pharmacist at Lolo Drug.
“Prescription drug abuse is a real problem in America. … If physicians use it like it was meant to be used, it should really help the people of Montana,” he said.
Gov. Steve Bullock was Montana’s attorney general in 2011, when he successfully urged the Legislature to approve a prescription drug registry.
“When we first started looking at prescription drug abuse over four years ago, it really was an invisible epidemic,” Bullock said earlier this week. “And yet it was killing more Montanans every year than cocaine, heroin, meth and traffic deaths combined.”
Bullock cited the case of a 24-year-old opiate addict who obtained prescriptions from 255 doctors in seven communities in an 832-mile circuit.
Her addiction was so strong that “she pulled the caps off her teeth and intentionally caused two car accidents to get more prescriptions for painkillers.”
With the registry, Montana joined 47 other states that monitor certain addictive prescription drugs such as opiates and codeine. It requires pharmacies to report weekly on the prescriptions they fill for controlled substances.
The registry now contains nearly 2.8 million prescriptions for controlled substances, based on reporting from pharmacies that represent more than 400,000 patients, according to state records.
The registry started collecting data in March 2012, and its information goes back to July 2, 2011. Its online search feature was launched in November.
The registry allows doctors and pharmacists and some others to check to see if patients with prescriptions for such medications are getting them elsewhere. Law enforcement can’t use the registry without a subpoena.
In April alone, there were 6,321 patient history searches, according to state records. The state does not track how often those searches detect problems.
“I definitely find that pharmacists use it a lot more than doctors do,” said Carly Hansen, a pharmacist at Ridgeway Pharmacy in Stevensville.
Physicians and pharmacists, along with a few others, can check the registry if they suspect abuse.
“It is so quick and so easy to jump on the prescription drug monitoring program and just check it out,” said Roadarmel. For instance, Lolo Drug recently dealt with a woman who had obtained prescriptions from eight different doctors, and was filling them at nine pharmacies between Kalispell and Hamilton, he said.
Before the registry, if he had suspicions that someone was doctor-shopping, he might have made a few phone calls to area physicians and pharmacies, he said.
“But I would never call (a doctor or pharmacist) in Kalispell and say, ‘Have you been filling for this individual?’ ” he said.
A few clicks in the registry told him everything he needed to know. Which brought Roadarmel to another point:
“You can spot abuse and you can also spot who needs help. That is an important critical issue with the drug monitoring program. This young lady needs help ... and now she’s in rehab,” he said.
Curtis, of Corvallis Drug, said he worries about people with access to the registry using it for the wrong reasons – “maybe to see what another employee might be using, or your boss or your friend or your wife.” Still, he called it “a useful tool.”
The law creating the registry addressed privacy concerns by limiting access to pharmacists, doctors and certain representatives from Montana Medicare and Medicaid programs, and from Tribal Health, Indian Health Services and Veterans Affairs.
Prescription for Addiction: Thursday night at 10 on KECI-TV, hear Montana Governor Steve Bullock discuss the prescription drug abuse epidemic. He talks about the state's prescription drug registry he helped set up as attorney general, and other steps he's taken as governor to address the issue.