Lori Ortale may be one of the few pharmacists in Las Vegas who believes the Nevada Supreme Court should decide pharmacists should be held liable if someone who receives a controlled substance from her goes out and harms someone else while under the influence.
Several times a week, Ortale sees prescription drug abusers, also known as drug seekers, standing across from her. They’re the addicts who call in fake prescription refills, or steal doctors’ pads and forge prescriptions, or maybe just find multiple doctors to give them legal prescriptions.
Ortale won’t fill a legal prescription for controlled substances like painkillers if she suspects the patient is a drug seeker. Just last week, she refused to fill a prescription for a woman after calling the doctor and learning the phoned-in refill was a phony.
She contacted me after reading my column a week ago about the case pending against pharmacies that provided controlled substances to Patricia Copening, who killed one man and injured another while driving under the influence.
The families want to sue the pharmacies as well as Copening and the doctors who prescribed painkillers for her.
“Common sense tells me that both the pharmacist and the physician share responsibility concerning filling controlled substance,” Ortale wrote in an e-mail before we spoke in person.
A pharmacist in Las Vegas since 1990, including 16 years working at Smith’s Food and Drug Stores, Ortale, 41, now owns her own specialized pharmacy, Las Vegas Pharmacy Inc. at 2600 W. Sahara Ave., which provides controlled substances on a lien basis for people with personal injury lawsuits pending. She accepts no insurance.
“I am constantly shocked at the amount of prescription drug abuse that is happening here, and the problem has only escalated over the years,” she said.
Ortale calls herself probably the No. 1 fan of the Nevada Controlled Substance Task Force Web site, which lets pharmacists and doctors check out patients they suspect are abusing controlled substances. But the task force is merely an information gathering system; it’s not an enforcement agency.
For years, Ortale has called police and state investigators when she suspects a prescription is forged. “I do my part.”
But over those years, she’s learned that even when she calls, she can’t physically hold someone, and so most people just walk out the door, taking their prescriptions with them. In larger pharmacies with a security officer, arrests sometimes occur and charges are filed. However, the cases are usually settled with plea bargains, she said.
Ortale has taken responsibility herself. She knows the roughly 10 doctors in town who are loose about filling prescriptions, and she doesn’t fill their prescriptions. For instance, she stopped filling prescriptions for Dr. Kevin Buckwalter’s patients even before this past November when the Board of Medical Examiners stripped him of his authority to prescribe controlled substances, based on the death of at least one of his patients.
The Board of Pharmacy advises pharmacists who suspect drug abuse to call the prescribing doctor and try to counsel the abuser, but Ortale said those recommendations are “completely ineffective.”
“I can’t begin to count the number of times I have reported these patients to the physician and have simply been told, ‘It’s OK to fill the prescription early.'” (She wasn’t the only pharmacist to tell me that.)
The doctors in town she called “the druggie writers” will write anything for anyone anytime, Ortale said. “When I see a prescription from these particular doctors, I automatically assume the patient is a drug addict. There must be some underground network where druggies can find out which doctors and pharmacies will fill your prescriptions at will.”
What frustrates her is that if she knows those doctors’ offices are “prescription factories,” how can the Board of Pharmacy, the Drug Enforcement Agency or state narcotics investigators not know? In fairness, Ortale said, she’s sure they are understaffed and overworked, but still.
The Nevada Supreme Court ultimately will decide what duty pharmacists have to third parties; and perhaps the Nevada Legislature, since it’s now in session, will look at the laws on the books.
Meanwhile, Lori Ortale refuses to be an accessory to drug abuse. She sleeps quite well at night by taking that stance and embracing that responsibility.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.