A California woman is accused of posing as a pharmacist and either verifying or dispensing nearly a million prescriptions at Walgreens pharmacies before getting caught.
A Chicago Tribune report notes that the California state pharmacy board has now launched an investigation into how it allegedly came to be that three Bay Area Walgreens stores, over the course of about 10 years, allowed an employee without a pharmacist license to sign off on or fill 745,355 prescriptions, involving a total of 395 Walgreens pharmacies.
Of the nearly three-quarters of a million prescriptions that Kim Thien Le is accused of verifying or dispensing, over 100,000 of them were for controlled substances such as alprazolam, a sedative used to treat anxiety and panic disorder, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Le reportedly worked at Walgreens in San Jose, Milpitas, and Fremont.
Jim Cohn, a spokesman for Walgreens, told the Times that Le has not worked for the company since October 2017.
“Upon learning of this issue, we undertook a re-verification of the licenses of all our pharmacists nationwide to ensure that this was an isolated incident,” Cohn said in a statement, cited by the Times.
The spokesman did not provide information as to how it was allegedly possible that Le worked at a Walgreens pharmacy without a license when asked to comment by KPIX5 reporters.
‘Shocked Beyond Belief’
“I’m just shocked beyond belief that this would happen here at Walgreens, a place that we trust,” customer Sandra Cervantez was cited by KPIX5 as saying. “It really makes me suspect of how we’re checking pharmacists’ backgrounds.”
“Something has to change either with Walgreens or the way people are checked for their backgrounds,” Cervantez added.
Officials at the California Board of Pharmacy are considering taking disciplinary action against Walgreens.
Bob Davila, a spokesman with the pharmacy board, told the Chicago Tribune that if the investigation confirms the accuracy of allegations against Le, the Walgreens stores involved could face penalties that range from a reprimand to having pharmacy licenses pulled. Davila added that no hearing date has yet been set for either the accusations against Le or for those against the three Walgreens stores.
“Walgreens should’ve done a better job in screening,” said customer Monte Williams, according to KPIX5.
‘A Matter of Life and Death’
Jon Roth, the CEO of the California Pharmacists Association, told the Chicago Tribune that checking the credentials of potential new hires is a crucial responsibility that pharmacies must discharge in order to ensure patient safety.
“It literally is a matter of life and death,” Roth told the news outlet. “Medications can help and they can hurt. Some of those medication profiles are extremely complicated, and so there can be real patient harm that results from someone who’s not qualified or not licensed acting as a pharmacist.”
Roth told the Tribune that poor vetting procedures also undermine the public’s trust.
“Pharmacists are the face of neighborhood health care. We all walk into pharmacies all the time and speak with our pharmacist, whether it’s a small minor ailment or a complex issue with our medication,” he said.
“So we have to be able to have the ultimate consumer trust that who we’re talking to is both licensed and trained to offer us that counseling,” Roth said.
‘Just Forget About This’
Officials at the California Board of Pharmacy were cited by KPIX5 as saying on Wednesday, Jan. 30, that in a decade of pretending to be a pharmacist and pharmacy manager at the Walgreens stores, the woman lied to the board about having a university degree. State officials checked education records and discovered that Le’s claims that she had graduated from Creighton University turned out to be false.
Investigators cited by Chicago Tribune said Creighton had files matching Le’s name and date of birth, but there was no record of her ever having received a degree.
“The entry in their files could simply have been the result of an inquiry by her, and did not necessarily indicate enrollment or matriculation,” the complaint said.
According to the report, she also allegedly used the pharmacist license numbers of two pharmacists with similar names as cover for her activity.
When officials at the pharmacy board questioned Le about filling prescriptions without a license, KPIX5 reported, she allegedly told them “Me and my son would be very grateful if you could just forget about this.”
“I will pay whatever fine,” Le reportedly told investigators, adding that she would “not be coming back to work as a pharmacist.”
For allegedly posing as a pharmacist, Le could be prevented from reactivating her expired pharmacy technician license, which the Tribune reported she held until 2008.