My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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CVS refused to fill my prescription; is this legal?

A week ago, I went to my normal pharmacy to get a prescription filled. When they told me they were out but could order it for me, I decided to try the nearby CVS. I was trying to make errand-running a one-day event. I walked into the CVS on Lincoln in Venice and politely waited my turn. When I handed my prescription to the clerk, she turned to the pharmacist to see if he had it available. He looked my prescription, looked at me, and said “I’m not filling that.” Confused, I asked him what? He repeated that he would not fill it and gave me a look that made me feel as though I was somehow a bad person. When I asked why, he grew curt and told me that he doesn’t fill prescriptions from out-of-town doctors. The woman waiting in line next to me rebuked his claim when she responded, “you always fill mine and my doctor is in Santa Barbara.” He silenced her with a stern look and told her this was none of her business. Standing amidst a flood of customers, I was too shocked and embarrassed to know what to do. So I left.

I’ve heard stories of people being refused emergency contraception, but my prescription has nothing to do with birth control. I’ve heard stories of people abusing the ADHD medication that I’m on, but I’ve been responsibly taking this particular medication since 2001 and my doctor would’ve easily confirmed that. I am a Berkeley student and my doctor is based in Berkeley. I have been seeing him since I arrived in Berkeley in 2003. When I moved to Los Angeles, he and his colleagues started sending me a physical prescription to fill down here provided that I visit annually for a check-up. Because my prescription is scheduled, it can’t simply be called in. Due to a bad reaction to whatever gelatin or sugar is used in the generic, I’ve always been given the brand name prescription. I hate paying the extra money, but I hate the headaches a whole lot more. While I’ve been given plenty of sympathetic looks when I shell out major duckets for the prescription, I’ve never been given a problem by a pharmacy before.

My shock has since turned into a series of emotions. Confusion, anger, frustration. I contacted CVS to voice my complaint and was told that “a Pharmacist works under their own private license and reserves the right to refuse to fill for any reason.” Is this true? I cannot find authoritative information on the matter and I’m quite confused, so I have some questions for anyone who knows more than I do:

  • Under what circumstances can a pharmacist refuse a prescription?

  • Are there laws that dictate when and how pharmacists can refuse a valid prescription even when it can be confirmed by the doctor and does not conflict with any other medication?
  • Are there examples of people being denied legitimate prescriptions for things other than contraception?
  • How often are people denied their prescriptions?
  • What recourses and alternatives do patients have when they are denied?

According to the USA Today, “The policy at most drug store chains and the American Pharmacists Association is that druggists shouldn’t be forced to violate their beliefs, but they must make arrangements so the patient can still get the pills from another pharmacist at the store or direct the patient to a store that will fill the order. That makes sense. Pharmacists with objections to some medicines should identify those situations ahead of time, and stores should let the public know their policies.” This was not the case at CVS. There were no signs saying that they wouldn’t accept my prescription nor did the pharmacist make any offer to connect me with someone else or encourage me to come back at a different time. He simply chased me away and glared at me as though I was a criminal.

Anyhow, I’m not sure what I can do other than never step foot in a CVS again. I’m lucky that I have choices, but, knowing that many people do not, the way that I was treated and refused service makes me really upset.

Update: the CVS pharmacy supervisor of Los Angeles called me to get more information. He agreed that what the pharmacist did was inappropriate and that, if he had doubts about the legitimacy of my prescription, he should have called Berkeley or held onto it to call in the morning. The supervisor said that he would make certain that his pharmacists had a proper protocol for what to do when they were confronted with similar situations. He was deeply apologetic and professional.

The supervisor also made me realize one omission in my story. I have a long history of filling this prescription at other CVSes in Cambridge and San Francisco. The supervisor told me that the pharmacist would have been able to look my name up and see that record at other stores such that, even if he had never seen me before, CVS would have recognized me and my prescription as legitimate and having history.

I don’t know what the outcome will be for the pharmacist, but my hope is that CVS will actually do something to redress the broader issue, if only to not blemish their brand. Hopefully my experience and willingness to object will lead to new policies that will protect those less fortunate from being denied prescriptions in the future.

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158 comments to CVS refused to fill my prescription; is this legal?

  • rph

    Wow. You guys have no idea how stressful it is to try to figure out if a certain prescription is legit. I am a pharmacist myself and just in the past week, I filled two prescriptions for xanax and vicodin that was fake and I had no idea about it. Later, we found out that there was an identity theft and someone was filling these prescriptions under somebody else’s name and that person had no idea. In very unlucky situations, pharmacist could be fined, license suspended or go to jail for filling the wrong prescriptions. We always have to be very strict about controlled medications like adderall (being one of the highly controlled meds). To avoid identity theft situations, of course the pharmacist will check id to make sure this is for you. Of course, in Danah’s situation, I would have called the doctors office to verify but some fake prescriptions (that look real) have fake “doctor’s info” on the prescription and when we call to verify, this fake doctor will say “yeah its okay to fill” and who knows who’s answering the phone. having so many abusers out there, its really hard to verify if a certain prescription is truly real or not unless we have experience filling controlled prescriptions from the same doctor over and over again and we trust the office or we know you well enough to trust that you are using it for legit purposes. thats why pharmacists usually want to fill from local doctors offices that we trust. dont blame the pharmacist for being strict. blame the abusers who made it hard for people who take it for real medical needs to get the meds. thats why the laws get stricter and stricter every year.

    also, it is upto the pharmacists judgment to fill a prescription or not depening on how legit the prescription looks. it is not illegal to refuse a prescription if we are not comfortable filling it. i have a life too and i have a family that i want to protect. i will not go to jail for some iffy prescription i dont feel comfortable feeling. it is true that pharmacists should provide other options to have the prescription filled, but honestly if i think its not legit, its ethically wrong for me to recommend another pharmacy/pharmacist to fill it.

    and about being told to be too old and requiring diagnosis code. thats not us. that is 100% insurance. we dont have time, working at cvs (overworking us like dogs and slaves.. seriously bring so understaffed and having millions calls to make per day) we dont even have time to make up bs stories like that. while it could be that some pharmacists did not communicate tje information well enough… we dont purposely not give you the meds. we want to help you and make sure you get the right meds. and why would we want to create extra work by creating a false story only to get you mad and purposely not gove you the med. that doesnt make any sense! we want to get the prescription, fill it and get you going on your way. the biggest battle of our day is fighting with the insurance companies to get your meds covered. or call your doc to change it to something thats covered. insurance is the most complicated thing ever. every plan has a formulary (list of meds they cover) and they can change that list anhtime and make new rules and not even tell you about it. and next thing you know, you think its us thay changed the rules. no guys… we dont have ANY SAY in whats covered and not. thats your insurance company telling us what they want via their computer system to ours. and we are just the messengers informing you what they are saying. and everybody just wants to atrack the messenger. well, thats not gna fix the problem so think again!

    and usually if the insurance doesnt cover something, we have no power to have that fixed. only your doctor can call the insurance and give them a diagnosis code (reason why you are takkng this med) to see if insurance will even budge. most of the time, we just wait on your doctor or your insurance. we are just the messengers. we tell them whats going on but we cant really do anything but wait. and most of the time, doctors office take forever to get back to us. the way cvs overworks the pharmacy team, we just cannot find the time to follow up on hundreds of patient’s problems like every hour. this is why, as a patient for your health, you need to participate and call the doctors office too!

    and tell you the truth, there are millions of insurance plans out there and they all have different formularies (list of drugs they cover) and there is no way doctors office or the pharmacy know what your insurance covers. especially when each of those insurance plans decide to change their rules and formularies whenever they want.

    thats healthcare for you in america. blame the system, we all just follow the rules.

  • Roger Sterling

    @Cindy. No he wasn’t trying to do the right thing. The RIGHT thing would have been to have taken any of the steps outlined above, such as pull up her profile online or call her doctor.He opted instead to play rhe role of a judgemental ass, embarrassing and stereotyping this woman in front of a large group of people. What he did,in fact, was the opposite of the “right thing”

  • Roger Sterling

    …also Cindy, by labeling her as “one of the few” who uses her medication responsibly you become just as judgemental as the pharmacist himself. …it is the minority of people who abuse prescription drugs, a sizable minority to be sure, but a minority nonetheless. .It is statements like this, with a pure disregard for the facts, that allows our national ignorance towards medications of all kinds to continue , making it even harder for the people who legitimately need them to get them

  • Sarah

    This is a question for any pharmacist who may be reading….So what happens when a person is prescribed stimulants for a diagnosis of narcolepsy? Or what if they are prescribed ritalin for dyslexia? Will pharmacists still refuse to fill the prescription? I don’t understand why the DEA isn’t going after the DOCTORS that prescribe controlled medications illegally. I understand why pharmacists would be wary of filling these type of medications, but if they abide by protocol, then pharmacists should be legally “ok.” However, not filling prescriptions due to paranoia and (most likely) due to discrimination and prejudice may lead to severe negative outcomes. In order to further my point, I’ll use anti-depressants as an example. If a severely depressed patient is prescribed anti-depressants and suddenly stops taking the medication, the likelihood that the patient will experience an increase in suicidal thoughts increases sharply; the likelihood that the same patient will act on those thoughts increases exponentially. Refusing to fill an anti-depressant medication may lead to suicide. Will the pharmacist be blamed then? I believe medical “professionals” should leave their “morals,” “ethics,” and opinions out of medical care. Pharmacists are supposed to receive a prescription, fill it, provide information about taking the medication, discuss any possible contra-indications, and give the medication to the patient. If the pharmacist is concerned about the medical diagnostic criteria that led to the diagnosis the patient carries, then the pharmacist should have gone to medical school to become a doctor that treats PEOPLE. I feel horribly for those people who have been made to feel shame, humiliation, and discrimination by pharmacists with god-complexes/pathological personalities. If pharmacists keep up the behavior that they are engaging in currently, it won’t be too long before the public will demand computerized machines that dispense medications with more efficiency to the consumer. How hard would it be to have a prescription with a barcode on it and insert it into a mechanized-dispenser in a pharmacy, and have the machine dispense a bottle of your medications like a vending machine? Pharmacists, keep your egos in check. If machines can replace people and make cars, I definitely believe machines can dispense medications and save consumers from experiencing hidden racism/prejudice/aggression. No one should feel ashamed or marginalized when receiving medical care.

  • duke luke

    I had the same problems with CVS, not filling my ADD medication. They are given far too much authority!! They are clerks, NOT DOCTORS!

  • Walter Thomas

    Hi Danah,

    Unfortunately unlike our parents’ /grrandparents’ world the Biases we experience are many times a lot more complex even though they stem from the same source ignorance. So sorry that happened to you and what he did was definitely wrong and probably he’ll be repremanded (maybe even moved to a new store) .. given the level of education needed I doubt they’ll simply fire him… Although I could be completely off. At the very least he should be able to wtrite you a personal letter of apology. People forced to take meds for any reason out of their control have a hard enough time. Like we want to be dependent on these medications (Epilepsy, Depression, ADD, etc.) for any length of time. But then to be made to feel ashamed of it by another human being, that’s just plain wrong. Many of those meds used for ADD also have a cross-use with people who have depression and PTSD…and this guy doesn’t know you or your medical history at all. Someone needs to remind him of his Hypocratic oathe to do no harm, I’m sure pharmacists who receive Doctorates also go through it.


  • Laura

    I had surgery last October. I went to fill the medication that I was given for the pain. I went to the same CVS I have been going to for three years. The pharmacist refused to fill it because I looked high. First he said he didn’t have it, then called to another CVS. I was told that the other location had it, but not fill it for me. I was not going to drive back across the county. As I was walking away I heard him tell the technician, that he was not going to aid in someone’s addiction, she is high right now. I turned around when he said this and told him that when you have surgery you are given pain medications, and they don’t always wear off before you leave the hospital, and that I was not high I was tired.
    Four days later I went in and filled the same prescription for my husband, no questions. Same technician, different pharmacist. The pharmacist apologized for his colleagues behavior.

  • Vee

    Last week I went to my local CVS, the one I’ve gone to for nine years to fill my family’s scripts including my son’s ADHD meds. My pharmacist told me that they did not have any the medication on stock and handed the script back to me. I asked when they would have it in. He answered that he did not know. In shock, I replied that I needed these meds for my son. I asked if he would check other CVS pharmacies. He said he was not allowed to do that. There was an awkward silence and I asked him what I should do. He replied maybe I should drive around town looking for a pharmacy that would fill it. He suggested that maybe I should have my son’s doctor change his medicine to something else! After getting over that shock, I reminded him that I had been a loyal customer of this CVS branch for nine years. That I relied on this CVS to fill my family’s meds and that I was now feeling let down and insulted. His reply was a shrug.

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