Canton, Ohio - CVS fined for understaffing pharmacy, risking staff and patient safety

Parija Kavilanz, CNN | 2/7/2024, 3:10 p.m.
State regulators hit CVS with a $250,000 fine against one of its stores in Canton, Ohio, after investigators found that ...
State regulators hit CVS with a $250,000 fine against one of its stores in Canton, Ohio, over understaffing. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters/FILE

State regulators hit CVS with a $250,000 fine against one of its stores in Canton, Ohio, after investigators found that the pharmacy had been understaffed, posing a risk to the well-being of patients seeking medication in a timely manner.

The move from the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy follows a walkout by pharmacists at some of the largest chain drugstores last October, including CVS, because of overwhelming and exhausting working conditions triggered by what the workers have said are low staffing levels, heavy workloads and low pay.

The Board said its investigation stems back to 2021 when its agents visited the CVS location in September of that year and found several problems.

The investigation found that the store was seriously short staffed, pharmacy phones were not working properly and the AC unit was broken. Agents also noted the drive-thru lane was backed up with several cars after a sign at the front of the store told customers that the pharmacy lobby was closed and everyone had to go through the drive thru.

In yet one more instance, staff asked management to close the store down temporarily to catch up on filling prescriptions and clean the pharmacy, but the request was denied.

A follow-up visit by agents revealed that the pharmacy was over a month behind in filling prescriptions, according to the agency’s report.

CVS told CNN in an emailed statement Friday that the retailer is aware of the Ohio Board of Pharmacy’s decision regarding its store in Canton, and that it will continue to work with the Board collaboratively.

Covid era overloads

“The allegations stem from BOP inspections in 2021, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ve made great strides to improve the conditions there in the years since, including putting a strong pharmacy team in place that continues to provide high-quality care to patients. We’re committed to ensuring there are appropriate levels of staffing and resources at our pharmacies,” CVS spokesperson, Amy Thibault, said in a statement.

In addition to the fine, regulators also put the 7292 Fulton Drive CVS store on probation for at least three years during which it will be subject to enhanced monitoring.

Among the mandated new requirements by regulators, CVS has to ensure that staffing at the store is “sufficient” at all times to “minimize fatigue, distraction, or other conditions which interfere with a pharmacist’s ability to practice with requisite judgment, skill, competence, and safety to the public.”

The board requires all new and refill prescriptions should be ready within three business days of receiving the prescription and within five days for all refill prescriptions generated by an auto-refill program.

“We hope that this decision will send a strong message to Ohio pharmacies that they have an obligation to serve their patients by ensuring appropriate staffing levels,” Steven W. Schierholt, State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy Executive Director, said in a statement. “The Board will continue to inspect and hold those accountable for working conditions that endanger patients and pharmacy staff.”

A spokesperson for the state’s Board of Pharmacy told CNN on Wednesday that the agency currently has 22 cases pending against 20 other CVS stores in Ohio. The issues being investigated range from hundreds of prescriptions allegedly being past due, pharmacy staffing shortages, clutter and unsafe working conditions and concerns about maintaining adequate medications safety inside the pharmacy.

Pharmacists are stretched

Chain pharmacy workers across the US have told CNN that increased demand for prescriptions, shots and other services without sufficient staff to fulfill those orders has made it nearly impossible for workers to do their jobs properly and has created potentially unsafe conditions for customers.

A 2022 National Community Pharmacists Association survey showed that nearly 75% of respondents felt they did not have enough time to safely perform clinical duties and patient care.

These concerns led some pharmacists to walk out of CVS and Walgreens stores pharmacies last fall and ignited a national push to unionize pharmacy workers.

About 70% of prescriptions in the country come from chain retailers like Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, according to a 2019 Drug Channels Institute report.

CVS provided about 25% of all prescriptions, while Walgreens accounted for another 20%.

A pharmacist’s work goes beyond just filling up a bottle with pills.

Pharmacists check prescriptions they receive from doctor’s offices for possible errors, match details on prescriptions to patient profiles, check for possible drug interactions, bill insurance companies and counsel patients. All of that is done in between giving vaccines, ringing up and counseling customers and answering questions about over-the-counter medications.

There’s a lot of room for error with serious consequences.

Between 7,000 to 9,000 people die in the United States as a result of a medication error each year, according to a recent National Institutes of Health study. Hundreds of thousands of other patients experience but often do not report an adverse reaction or other medication complications, the study found.