Retail pharmacies are in the news a lot these days. Unfortunately, it is not the kind of news anyone wants to hear. Nearly every day, there are reports of pharmacies that have been burglarized and of pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and other staff who have been shot or attacked.
In one of the more violent recent attacks, a robber held a knife to the throat of a pharmacist at a 24-hour Walgreens store in Hamilton, Ohio. Fortunately, police shot and killed the man, and the pharmacist was unharmed.
In mid-August, a man dressed as a woman held up Remco Pharmacy in Arlington, Texas. Unfortunately, the pharmacist was shot (but not killed) by the robber. And on August 1, a man and woman robbed the Swan Serv-U Pharmacy in Wauwatosa, Wis., at gunpoint. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison for armed robbery.
In another recent case, two young men armed with knives jumped over the counter at a Target pharmacy in Henderson, Nevada, and demanded cough medicine. No pharmacy staff or customers were hurt in the incident.
Pharmacy crime is increasingRichard Logan“Pharmacy crime has been on the rise for the last three or four years, and violence involved is increasing,” said Richard Logan, owner of L & S Pharmacy in Charleston, Mo., and a police officer who investigates prescription drug fraud. “Everyone knows a story of a pharmacy being robbed, or someone being taken hostage or shot.”
Pharmacy robberies reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reached 916 in 2015, up from 839 in 2014 and 713 in 2013. More than 50 percent of incidents reported to RxPatrol involve theft by force or threat of force, according to 2014 figures.
The odds of a pharmacy being robbed or burglarized – or the target of theft (including employees) – is around 14 percent nationwide, according to a study of DEA data by the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.
From 2002 through 2005, the study identified an estimated 7,134 pharmacy thefts. Many pharmacies do not report attempts, break-ins without loss of narcotics, minor burglaries, or even robberies when the dollar loss in minimal to the DEA, according to Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Company’s “Pharmacy Crime” report.
Independent stores are more likely to experience burglaries (66 percent of pharmacy crimes at independents versus six percent at chains), according to DEA. However, robberies accounted for 36 percent of pharmacy crimes at chain drug stores and 31 percent at independents.
Matthew Balish, staff pharmacist at Pemberton Pharmacy in Salisbury, Md., believes independent pharmacies face fewer robberies. “Smaller pharmacies are safer. You know everyone who comes through the door,” said Balish, who has colleagues at chain stores who have been victims of robberies.
No matter where burglaries, robberies, and violent attacks occur, they are having a financial impact on the industry in a big way. The estimated annual cost of pharmacy crime was $61.3 billion back in 2009, according to DEA. Pharmacists Mutual expects to pay out more than $5 million in pharmacy crime coverage this year.
One reason for the increase in crime against pharmacies is the U.S. government’s crackdown on pill mills, doctor and pharmacy shopping, and opioid abuse, pharmacists and others believe. “Addicts who can’t get drugs from their doctors are turning to pharmacy crime,” said Michael Warren, risk manager for Pharmacists Mutual Companies in Algona, Iowa.
“There is definitely a correlation between cracking down on supply and pharmacy crime,” Logan said. “Rescheduling hydrocodone to a Schedule II narcotic [in 2014] made a difference.”
“Drugs on the street are drying up a bit,” agreed Peter Wolfe, owner of Wolfe’s Pharmacy in Chauvin, La. “People are willing to do anything to make a profit.”
How pharmacy stacks up to other jobs
Despite the increase in crime and violence against pharmacists, the profession is not necessarily less safe than other occupations.
Residential care injuries were three times higher than pharmacy injuries – 2.6 per every 100 workers in the industry in a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014 data. Hotel injuries were twice as high. “Plus, retail in general is 50 percent higher,” Warren said.
When people get hurt in pharmacies, it is generally “slip and fall” cases, Warren said. “It’s not a dangerous place to work, in general. The exposure of violent acts, other than related to robbery, is not different than other types of retail [settings],” Warren said.
Over the past five years, Pharmacists Mutual found that injuries occurred in 4.3 percent of robberies and burglaries reported to the insurer. In addition, there are very few cases in which robbers tied up pharmacy staff or required them to lay on the floor. Many don’t even display a weapon, Warren said.
The threat of robberies is what frightens pharmacists, according to Warren. “Out of the blue, someone who may be desperate can walk into the store with a gun and the results can potentially be fatal. In any one robbery, the criminals or criminals can potentially kill multiple people.”
There is no doubt that the threat of harm to pharmacy employees and customers is real. There were 839 armed robberies and seven fatalities reported to the DEA from pharmacies and drug stores nationwide in 2014. Pharmacist Mutual members had just one fatal shooting incident in five years, but there were multiple fatalities.
Should you stay in your job?
After robberies, burglaries or other violent acts, some victims opt to leave the pharmacy profession altogether.
For example, a pharmacist and pharmacy tech at Kappa Pharmacy in Hawaii reportedly decided to leave the profession altogether after a mask-wearing robber held them up with a BB gun last year. “We have seen people leaving over the years. It is rare, though,” Warren said.
Instead of leaving the profession, Logan has seen pharmacists relocated to different stores after going through traumatic crime experiences.
The trauma of robbers and other crimes affects each victim differently. “It is very traumatic and people are going to react differently,” Logan said. “Years ago, my business partner was robbed at gunpoint at one of our locations. He could only remember that the robber held a really big gun.”
“I don’t blame them for leaving the profession. I would at least consider changing practice areas if I were robbed,” Balish said. Personally, Balish said the crime problem does not keep him up at night, but “when I see these things, I worry about the profession. I don’t want to be behind bullet-proof glass. It’s hard to check someone’s blood pressure that way.”
However, most pharmacists, even if they are shaken up after robberies and attacks, stay in the profession. “They have ownership in the business and it can be challenging to find a job in another business. We don’t see them quit very often,” Warren said. It appears that pharmacy techs and clerks who are often younger and have other career options are more likely than pharmacists to leave the profession following an armed robbery, he added.