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

  • 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.

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