Pharmacist on hunger strike against prescription giant Medco listen09/17/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Around half of all Americans are on prescription drugs. Many insurance companies now make patients get them filled by mail instead of the pharmacy down the street. Mail-order drug giant Medco fills more than one million of these each week. Such high demand may be putting potentially hazardous pressure on the pharmacists who process prescription orders. One former employee of Medcoâ€™s Tampa facility is staging the ultimate protest to expose what heâ€™s calling unethical practice.
Rajendra Bhat and his family live in a manicured suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Tampa â€“ three car garages, crew-cut lawns, the whole bitâ€¦Not exactly the kind of setting one would associate with impassioned protest. Bhat hasnâ€™t left the house in weeks, save for once to get a hair cut. Bhat is about to round out his eleventh week without food.
Bhat says itâ€™s invigorating to talk about his cause. A pharmacist trained at the University of Bangalore, he came to the US in 1984. In 1995, he started working for New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Medco. A far cry from a neighborhood drugstore, the company employs pharmacists in Tampa, among other places, to decode doctor-scribbled drug prescriptions sent by patients. Medco spokesperson Ann Smith says the actual pill bottles â€“ millions of them â€“ get filled at facilities hundreds of miles away.
Shortly after the company became publicly traded in 2003, Bhat says there was a marked difference in the companyâ€™s demands on its pharmacists.
Bhat says the company enforces hourly quotas on pharmacists that leave little room for careful scrutiny of doctor handwriting, and reprimands those who call for clarification.
He says this leaves room for potentially deadly errors.
He even got the State Board of Pharmacy to investigate, but to no avail. In 2005, just days after the board closed its investigation, Medco fired Bhat. He says it was a retaliatory measure, but Medco said it was due to poor performance. Medco spokesperson Ann Smith says the company has never imposed quotas on its pharmacists.
Fred Redmond is International Vice President of United Steelworkers, the union that has represented Medco pharmacists since 2007. He says there are concerns at a New Jersey facility, but he doesnâ€™t know of any complaints from the Tampa facility.
Bhat maintains that they do, and brought suit under the Florida Whistleblower act earlier this year. Randall Reder, Bhatâ€™s attorney, says the judge appeared ready to deny Medco summary judgment of the case, which meant he saw room for dispute.
Reder says the judge seemed to abruptly reverse his stance.
The case is on appeal, and Reder is representing Bhat on contingency.
Bhat says he worries that the unethical practices he alleges may become systemic if left unchecked.
Bhat has eaten nothing and has had only water to drink since July Fifth. While he waits to see if the appeal gets taken up, he says his other hope is that the Senate Finance committee looks into the case.
WMNF contacted the state Department of Health, under which the Board of Pharmacy operates, regarding the investigation. Here is what DOH spokesperson Eulinda Smith said:
"[Medco] has multiple licenses and there are no public complaints according to our records. There are multiple licensees for Medco. There are only two complaints that come up under any Medco listing, which are Medco Pharmacy from 1981 and 1991."