being a pharmacist a challenging, well-paid, respected profession ?

Jennifer Buth blew the whistle on Medicare fraud by her employer, PharMerica. Her lawsuit under the False Claims Act led to a $31 million settlement between the company and the federal government.

Fraud case leaves PharMerica whistle-blower bitter, seeking new career

Jennifer Buth thought being a pharmacist would be a challenging, well-paid, respected profession that would let her help people safely manage pain and illness.

She also quickly learned the dark side of the job.

Shortly after returning to Wisconsin from Florida with a doctorate in pharmacy, Buth was robbed twice in a month. When Walgreens wouldn’t transfer her to a different store, she quit.

She found work at a Sam’s Club pharmacy, then was recruited to PharMerica’s Pewaukee operation, where the national firm filled prescriptions for institutions such as nursing homes.

As the managing pharmacist, she earned six figures and supervised a dozen people. She took her ethics very seriously, and when it became apparent her bosses weren’t as concerned about cleaning up the operation, she called federal regulators.

The government later sued PharMerica for fraud, saying it illegally dispensed drugs such as OxyContin and fentanyl with little control or accounting — or even a doctor’s prescription — and falsely billed the government.

PharMerica earlier this month agreed to settle the case for $31 million. As the whistle-blower who started the action with a private False Claims Act lawsuit back in 2009, Buth and her attorney are entitled to $4.3 million.

But the payoff’s not why Buth, 35, just quit her latest pharmacist’s job, she said.

“It’s not been what I thought it would be,” she said in her attorney’s office, holding her sleeping daughter, Addison, on her chest. “I need a break from the profession. I’m too bitter.”

She said after taxes and attorney’s fees, her whistle-blower’s share — paid out over four years — will still ensure Addison can pay for college someday and let Buth try a new career, but it won’t let her retire.

She said she’s still got grad school loans and a mortgage on the house she bought in Waukesha to be close to PharMerica back in 2008.

Buth agreed to discuss her whistle-blower experience last week in the presence of her attorney, Nola Hitchcock Cross.

“Was it easy? No. Was it life changing? Yes. Did it work out in the end? Yes,”

But, she said, “It was a really rough six years. I just want to spend some time with my daughter now.”

Buth said that, at first, her bosses at PharMerica said they wanted her to fix the paperwork and inventory tracking issues but then gave her so many other projects she couldn’t really make progress. Soon, she said, it became apparent to her that most people were happy with the status quo.

Prosecutors alleged that staff — not patients’ doctors — at client nursing homes would fax requests for refills of addictive painkillers and other Schedule II drugs to PharMerica. There, workers would assign another 60 day supply and then send a template to the patient’s doctor for a signature.

But the templates often came back unsigned, according to prosecutors. Boxes of unsigned prescription templates were recovered in a 2009 raid in a room for storing supplies in Pewaukee, Buth said.

“My first concern was for patients,” she said. Their plight was concrete to her because her grandfather was in a nursing home.

Her employers said she’d have to repay her $10,000 signing bonus if she left the company that first year, even over illegal practices, Buth said. She was finally fired the day before the DEA raided the business. The agents made Buth come back and point out hidden files, she said, and it was during that time one agent suggested she ought to talk with a lawyer.

Buth was single, had just bought the house and new SUV and was concerned about her license and even going to jail, despite having tried to correct practices and ultimately calling the DEA.

When she realized it was really an employment issue, she found Cross just searching the Internet. Buth had heard of the False Claims Act but had no experience with it. Cross, on the other hand, has filed dozens of suits under the act and counseled Buth that she probably should, too.

The False Claims Act

The Civil War-era law allows those with inside knowledge of fraud against the federal government to sue on the government’s behalf. The suits are filed under seal to allow federal prosecutors to review them and consider taking them over. When they do, the cases can remain under seal for years while investigators gather evidence.

Potential plaintiffs, called “relators,” have to move fast; there can be other whistle-blowers and only the first to sue is entitled to a share of a recovery if they both reveal the same information.

“I never dreamed I’d be living in a ‘CSI’ episode,” she said. For weeks until she was fired, she gathered more evidence of wrongdoing at PharMerica and then waited after the suit was filed.

She got another pharmacist job in the meantime, she said. There, she said, she noticed a manager was very likely stealing.

“I was terrified to open my mouth again,” she said, “I didn’t want to be that person.”

But she did, and her boss told Buth she just didn’t get along with people and transferred her. The manager, she said, was eventually prosecuted.

News of the settlement has earned Buth an invitation to speak about pharmacist ethics at her alma mater, Nova Southeastern University, where, she said, professors prepared her well for the possibilities she encountered. Her message would be simple.

“You take an oath,” she said, “Don’t be afraid to do the right thing.”

But for now, she’s planning to go back to school and become an elementary school teacher.

“Maybe I could make a difference and not have to fight against fraud all the time,” she said.

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