and Hardwick’s Troubled Walgreens by Paul Fixx
The Vermont Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) and Walgreens have settled for $275,000 over claims that the company’s policies caused unsafe conditions for patients and staff at pharmacies around the state between 2020 and 2022.
The Vermont Board of Pharmacy unanimously approved the fine Wednesday morning, resolving charges state regulators brought against Walgreens in June 2022.
“I am proud of the work our OPR investigators and attorneys have done to hold Walgreens accountable and to ensure safe conditions for patients and pharmacy staff,” Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas said in a press release on Wednesday. “This is a big win for Vermont consumers.”
The original charging document, presented by the OPR in response to 70 complaints filed by Walgreens employees and customers, as well as employees from other Vermont pharmacies, outlined dozens of alleged cases of medication and vaccination errors, staffing violations and unexpected store closures that left patients unable to obtain medications.
According to one complaint presented by regulators in that document, three children patronizing a Walgreens in St. Johnsbury received Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines that had been mistakenly diluted with an unapproved substance.
Such mistakes, state regulators claimed, resulted from untenable working conditions caused by the company’s policies and procedures. They asked the Board of Pharmacy to “revoke, reprimand, condition or otherwise discipline the licenses” of all 32 Walgreens pharmacies then operating in Vermont.
The company operated over 25% of the state’s licensed retail pharmacies at the time of the complaint, according to statistics provided in the charging document.
At least one of the complainants against Walgreens expressed disappointment with the settlement deal reached Wednesday.
Martin Irons, a pharmacist with an independent Vermont pharmacy who filed one of the complaints against Walgreens, called the settlement a “travesty” in an interview with VTDigger, saying that it failed to adequately hold Walgreens accountable for potential harm done to patients and staff.
“It’s a pittance,” Irons said of the fine amount. “And, frankly, this just speaks to the fact that if your pockets are deep enough… why would you change your stripes if you were that tiger?”
Sandra Rosa, vice president of the Vermont Pharmacists Association, had a more positive assessment. “$275,000 is a drop in the bucket for Walgreens, but we are pleased with the stipulations and the remediation (efforts),” she said in an interview.
In addition to the payment, Walgreens has also agreed to take remedial measures to improve conditions at Vermont locations, including increasing pay for staff and updating their phone systems so that customers are rerouted to other locations in the case of an unexpected closure.
“We are going to remain alert and in contact with our pharmacist members, especially those who are Walgreens pharmacists, to make sure that these things are followed through on,” Rosa said.
The Walgreens Boots Alliance, Walgreens’ parent company, reported approximately $27 billion in gross annual profits for fiscal year 2023, but regulators maintain that the settlement amount is less important than the company’s efforts toward changing its practices.
“This was the amount that we could agree upon with them, and this was a significant fine for us,” said Deputy Secretary of State Lauren Hibbert in an interview. She noted that the fine was the largest ever collected by the OPR. “We thought it was reflective of the work that our team has put in,” she said.
“And the goal really isn’t to be punitive — it is to ensure that these remedial practices continue in our state,” said Hibbert. “Of course, if they don’t, then OPR would be able to open complaints if any future unprofessional conduct occurs.”
While agreeing to the settlement terms, Walgreens has continued to deny wrong-doing in the case.
“Walgreens disputes the accuracy of the state’s allegations and admits no liability; however, we are pleased to have reached this settlement,” said Jen Cotto, a spokesperson for Walgreens, in a written statement to VTDigger.
Vermont isn’t the only state where the company has faced charges of workplace and operating hours violations.
In 2022, Connecticut’s Commission of Pharmacy fined Walgreens nearly $75,000 for a slew of alleged violations at roughly 20 pharmacies, according to reporting from the Hartford Courant. That same year in Maine, Walgreens paid $68,000 to state regulators for similar alleged violations, the Maine Monitor reported.
In the fall of 2023, the company faced widespread walkouts by pharmacy workers at locations across the country protesting staffing issues and working conditions.
Hardwick’s Troubled Walgreens
by Paul Fixx
HARDWICK – Area residents have had to contend with many of the same issues mentioned in the VTDigger story. There have been closures at the local store, leaving customers unable to to pick up their prescriptions, or have new ones filled. Long phone waits and misrouted calls have also plagued many.
One customer was unable to have a much-needed Paxlovid prescription filled quickly to combat a case of COVID. It was prescribed on a Thursday, but unable to be filled until the following Monday,
During much of late 2021 and 2022 the Walgreens Pharmacy in Hardwick was closed Saturdays. Then, in July of 2022, they began closing on Monday as well, increasing the frustration of already very annoyed customers. That, along with reduced hours, often made it difficult for those working out of town on weekdays to pick up medications.
For a long time the phone system’s automated attendant couldn’t connect incoming calls to the pharmacy. Some callers learned to call the store counter and have them relay messages to have the call picked up, or ask for return calls.
This week, when asked about the settlement between Walgreens and Vermont’s Office of Professional Regulation, an employee could only say, “I’m not sure we’re allowed to speak on behalf of the company” and suggested a call to the “corporate Media Relations Department.” A subsequent call to that department then only allowed for a message to be left.
Customers’ frustration with the company shows in Facebook posts as far back as December of 2021, when the Hardwick store had already been closed on Fridays and Saturdays for several months. One post on Friday, February 24, 2022, announced a same-day pharmacy closure. Employees usually reported that unscheduled closures were due to a lack of available pharmacists.
In July 2022, one area resident wrote of Hardwick’s Walgreens, “We all know that for two years they have been closed on weekends, but for the last several weeks I have also not been able to get my prescriptions on a Friday or Monday. I finally asked the front of the store today which days we can count on being able to pick up our prescriptions and they said, ‘Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.’
Plan accordingly, do not expect to be able to get a prescription filled other than three days a week. If you have an emergency call into CVS in Montpelier or Morrisville. CVS seems to have no problem with staffing as the Walgreens’ in Hardwick, Montpelier, and St. Johnsbury (do).”
She recently said, “they are there all the time now, and are very helpful. They have even done me favors sometimes.”