Pharmacy crackdown good news for the City

Columnist and retired Langley Times editor, Frank Bucholtz is praising B.C.'s college of pharmacists for taking action against rule breakers

Word that the ministry of health and the College of Pharmacists of B.C. are both cracking down on pharmacies who abuse their privilege to dispense methadone is very good news for Langley City.

City council, police and the Downtown Langley Business Association have all expressed concerns about the number of pharmacies operating in the City’s downtown core.

Chief among the concerns is that many of them are opening primarily to take advantage of a growing base of methadone users in the City. Methadone is prescribed to former heroin addicts and others who become addicted to drugs (some of them legal).

Some people link the addicts’ former drug use and current use of methadone with increased criminal activity.

When City council looked into passing a bylaw to restrict the opening of more pharmacies, it ran into problems. Its old bylaw was out of date; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would prevent it from trying to stop legal businesses from setting up shop; and it was operating as much on hearsay as it was on facts from the industry. It is still proceeding with a bylaw which would prevent new pharmacies from opening within 400 metres of existing ones.

Another bylaw, drafted in conjunction with the college of pharmacists, makes much more sense. It calls for a licensed pharmacist to be on site when methadone is dispensed; for a seating area for at least three people, so that patients can wait after ingesting liquid methadone; for restrictions on home delivery and clearly posted hours of operation. City council gave this bylaw first and second readings on June 15.

Meanwhile, as council heard at that meeting, the college and the ministry have not been idle. Several months ago, 46 pharmacies were put on notice that they could lose the ability to be part of the PharmaCare system, where the province pays pharmacies directly for most of the costs of prescription drugs.

It has followed through, with 29 pharmacies either closed or unable to take part in PharmaCare, Another dozen can still submit claims to PharmaCare, but under special conditions.

None of the pharmacies which have been closed or suspended from PharmaCare are in Langley City.

Many of the concerns centred on methadone. There were concerns that pharmacies may have engaged in improper business practices, such as kickbacks to retain drug-addicted patients.

Billing irregularities were a concern in other cases, including improper filing of drug information for patients into the province’s prescription-tracking network, potentially risking their health.

In other cases, false information had been provided by operators on their enrolment applications.

The prescription of methadone has grown rapidly in recent years, with over 15,000 people receiving it and being subsidized by PharmaCare. It is the second-most costly drug in the PharmaCare system, costing taxpayers $44 million a year.

Meanwhile, the college plans to target the top 20 methadone-prescribing pharmacies and others it has concerns about through undercover investigations over the next three years.

It has concerns that some addicts may be offered cash or housing to secure their business, or have had drugs withheld on occasion.

This action by the college is bold, considering it is targeting its own members. It is necessary, given the circumstances, and it should ease fears by some people in Langley City that a blind eye is being turned towards the methadone issue.

The action by the province is also necessary. Pharmacies which are not operating properly should not be able to be part of the PharmaCare system.

City council needs to stay on top of the issue, but it is heartening to know that the provincial government and the college of pharmacists are both taking decisive action.

Frank Bucholtz recently retired as editor of The Times. Contact him at frank.bucholtz@gmail.com.

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