The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) represents independently owned pharmacies, including more than 23,000 independent community pharmacies across the country, which fill approximately 40 percent of the total prescriptions across the country. Started in 2008, NCPAs “Protect Your Pharmacy Now,” currently in conjunction with “Protect Your Pharmacy Week,” is a training and education campaign that proactively prepares and trains pharmacists and owners on what to do if something happens in their pharmacy. This year’s theme is “make a plan to REACT: Remain calm, Eye witness, Activate alarm, Call police, and Take charge.” These tips are highly recommended by RxPATROL (Rx Pattern Analysis Tracking Robberies & Other Losses developed by Purdue Pharma) to help during a crime against a pharmacy. Besides providing NCPA members with tips and recommendations, the association offers free handouts, height stickers, and discounts on security equipment. Last month, Dispatch Production Manager Nazmia Alqadi spoke with Valerie Briggs, Senior Director of External Communications and Marketing Outreach, NCPA; Ronna B. Hauser, Vice President of Policy and Regulatory Affairs, NCPA; and Joe Harmison, Past President of NCPA and owner of two pharmacies in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.
CP Dispatch: In your personal opinion, describe the scope of pharmacy robberies (for the purpose of this article, pharmacy robberies will include both robberies and burglaries), including the spike in robberies.
Joe: It’s increasing at an alarming rate, due to several factors, as law enforcement continues to clean up the streets we get more robberies and burglaries. Clearly, law enforcement is doing something right on the streets. There is so much money involved in this, that criminals will take the risk. [Law enforcement doesn’t] see this as a risk. Rapes, mutilations, and kidnappings get a lot more attention from law enforcement and the courts. And with law enforcement stretched thin, court dockets filled, and prisons overcrowded, it becomes a choice between someone who killed another person or someone who burglarized a pharmacy. This is a public health issue, especially with the large quantity of doses on the streets. We need to make it [so that] if someone does commit a pharmacy robbery, that there is a known penalty.
CP Dispatch: Have you experienced a pharmacy robbery?
Joe: I own a pharmacy in a hospital industry district, surrounded by doctors and nurses, and legitimate pain management doctors. This pharmacy was burglarized three times within a month and a half period: December 1, 2011; December 30, 2011; and January 15, 2012. The combined amount stolen was about $750,000 street value, almost 10,000 individual doses now on the streets. And this is an itty bitty pharmacy; I can only imagine the larger pharmacies. This is a significant public health problem. These do not appear to be kids or gangs, these are professionals. They know how to drill and work the locks. They had to go through reinforced doors with significant deadbolts and were out within 3 minutes.
After the first burglary, we put in motion-detector strobe lights. The next time they came, they brought expandable foam spray, and sprayed the sensors, and still got through. We want to make it difficult enough that they don’t have enough time to do this and they give up.
CP Dispatch: Have you seen or captured any trends in pharmacy robberies?
Ronna: We have a great partnership with RxPATROL, and they help us with tips and recommendations. For example, we had a member who experienced several robberies several months apart, and part of the recommendation that came out of these experiences was to pay better attention when someone enters a store. If someone had seen this guy, maybe things would have gone differently—in a sense, we need employees to be hypersensitive. They need to offer good customer service and acknowledge every person who enters. This is a bit of a deterrent.
Another scenario that we are seeing is individuals fraudulently representing themselves as an auditor or pharmacy representative. The employees hear this and automatically allow them behind the counter. We are advising pharmacies to remind their employees to use good common sense. Check for valid identification and call to verify the information.
CP Dispatch: What kinds of pills are being stolen?
Joe: A whole variety of pills—these criminals are great chemists. They know which combinations will get you high, and when they come into the pharmacies, they bring their shopping lists. The main pills are the controlled substances. The first time we were burglarized, it was all the Oxycodone, but the second time it was Hydrocodene, Alprazolam, and Promethazine syrup. They know the ways to use pills to get high and based on the street value, they want it. They never once took the money, not even interested in it.
CP Dispatch: What security measures have pharmacies taken to counter robberies?
Joe: My pharmacy is more of an office setting. We have reinforced steel doors to the dispensing areas. We installed camera systems that are live, day and night, can be monitored anywhere, and have a 30-day recording cycle. We decided not to install silent alarms, but we do use the strobes. We have not put in the instant DNA fog; some police departments are completely behind it while others say do not do it. We do use a gun safe, however not the time-locked safes. Education is good, but not the end all. If you are educating the public, that is great. If you are educating the practitioners and staff, also great. But if we advocate educating the users and criminals, what are we going to teach them? At the end, it comes down to taking the money out of it, and that is not going to happen.
Ronna: All of these security measures are up to the pharmacy owners. Everything has its pros and cons. We offer many discounts for security measures and equipment. We also work with Crime Stoppers to help get information from the public.
CP Dispatch: What important information would you like law enforcement to know?
Joe: In every state it is illegal for a pharmacy to illegitimately dispense. [Granted,] we could get in trouble for not filling a prescription if it is legal. What are our rights for not doing this? If we think this is a forgery, we will not give it back. Legally, what can and can’t we do?
Ronna: We encourage our members to know law enforcement. If law enforcement makes it routine to stop by, this can serve as a deterrent.
Joe: We have held off the individuals on several occasions, and it turned out to be the right thing. But this also upsets the staff and customers, when someone is being interrogated by the police and possibly arrested [for fraudulent prescriptions]. We need to be real sure we are doing the right thing.
Ronna: We are part of the community; our stores can’t be behind bulletproof glass. So much of our business is a part of the community and certain crime prevention designs detract from those relationships.
CP Dispatch: Any other best practices for preventing/deterring pharmacy robberies?
Ronna: Deterrence more so than prevention. You can do all the right things, but [thieves] will still aggressively attack. At some point, maybe they won’t come back; it would be too much trouble to come back. We are working on getting tax breaks and incentives to pharmacies to help with the burden of security upgrades. Law enforcement should come by the pharmacies regularly; include them in their regular beats. We encourage pharmacies to put up signage or messaging that this is meant to be a safe environment. Use cameras inside and outside the store. Wipe down counters and doors throughout the day—a clean area for fingerprints. Teach employees how to be better witnesses, not to touch anything and not to comingle staff [after a robbery], so law enforcement can get a fresh perspective.
Joe: The mass majority will never experience this. When you look at the aggregate, it looks quite prevalent, but the incidents are really quite small. Like car insurance—for your whole life, most will never need to use it, but when you need it, it’s very important. All of these issues really become important when you have a robbery.
CP Dispatch: Any other thoughts?
Joe: We as pharmacists are very open to any suggestions—we will work with you [law enforcement and prosecutors] and we will be your best friends. We need to know what to do and what not to do. This is very important to us. The danger is unlike what law enforcement does on a daily basis, but there is danger involved in what we do—we will do whatever we can to help prosecute. And if you find one of us diverting, NCPA will become your best friend as well.
For more information about the National Community Pharmacists Association, please visit http://ncpanet.org/.