CVS’s Transparent Opioid PR Stunt

CVS’s Transparent Opioid PR Stunt

CVS has taken it upon itself to enact rules that allow their pharmacists to ignore a physician’s prescription by changing the number of pills, the daily maximum dose, and even the form of the drug itself. And the company’s new policy is based on a decidedly faulty premise, which I will describe below. What the company just did is bad news for both physicians and their patients. Let’s try to set them straight.

Since I am nothing if not helpful, I have taken the liberty of writing up a memo for the company to distribute to its pharmacists. Of course, CVS is free to tinker with the phraseology if they so choose. Corporate-speak is not one of my strengths. Here it is:


  1. In the morning, open the store.
  2. Have your pharmacists go behind the counter and do their jobs.
  3. Not the jobs of the FDA, DEA, CDC or the KGB.
  4. Tell them to dispense the f######ing pills that the doctor ordered. It is the doctor’s call, not theirs.
  5. Close the store.

I see CVS’ recent move to place restrictions on pain medication as little but a calculated attempt to look like heroes in a crisis. This just doesn’t smell right, only self-serving. And pardon me if I’m not impressed by the company’s $2 million contributed to opioid abuse treatment charities. It may appear to be altruistic, but it’s peanuts to CVS since it represents a whopping 0.02% of their annual profits and 0.001% of its sales ($177 billion in 2016).

I can almost picture all the CVS execs on the golf course patting themselves on the back for scoring big PR points with the public. Perhaps a few of them are even delusional or uninformed enough actually to believe that they just did something useful. But I doubt it. This has “disingenuous” written all over it.

And, if I’m a doctor, I’m gonna be mighty unhappy if a pharmacy doesn’t do what I tell them (not ask them) to do. And plenty of doctors around the country are not terribly happy about it either. I spoke with six. All were unhappy.

One is Dr. Arthur Kennish, a New York cardiologist who has been hassled, just like many other physicians for having the unmitigated gall to treat patients the way they choose. 

“CVS has some nerve. The use of opioids, or any other drug, really, is up to the doctor and his or her patients, not a pharmacist. This is a terrible precedent, which will drive an even bigger wedge between physicians and patients. It’s already too big”

Arthur Kennish, M.D. September 26, 2017

And Dr. Thomas Kline, who is a geriatric specialist in North Carolina, and active in fighting what he calls “a war on pain patients” was even blunter:

“Limiting prescriptions discriminates against 9 million people with painful diseases who will never addict nonetheless suffering inconvenience and humiliation to assuage the comfort zones of a long history of abstinence reformers, coming once again to the polemic footlights.”

Thomas Kline, M.D. September 27, 2017

(See below for quotes from the American Council physicians’ take on this matter)

So, what is CVS doing that has pain patents angry and terrified? Let’s examine the three worst ideas.

  1. Limiting to seven days the supply of opioids dispensed for certain acute prescriptions.
  • Let’s say that an orthopedic surgeon knows that an operation will cause a patient two weeks of bad pain. At which point they can switch to something like Advil. Yet, a bunch of executives decided that the store will only give a new patient a one-week supply. Do they know better than the surgeon what is best for his patient? 

     2. Limiting the daily dosage of opioids dispensed based on the strength of the opioid.

  • This one is even worse. At least in the first case, despite wasting the doctor’s time by making him write another script, and having to make two trips instead of one, at least the patient will get what is needed. But having a pharmacist dictating a maximum daily dose is really crossing the line. It is none of their damn business. Scientifically, it’s even worse. All people react differently to opioids. For example, some are 15-times better at metabolizing the drug than others. So an arbitrary maximum dose may work well for one person but be inadequate for another. Do you guys even know this?

     3. Requiring the use of immediate-release formulations of opioids before extended-release opioids are dispensed.

  • This is really dumb. Depending on the individual situation, there can be advantages for either immediate-release pills and time-release. A regular opioid pill will bring faster relief than an extended-release version, but wear off much sooner. Time-release medications result in a more consistent concentration of the drug in the blood; fewer ups and downs, as illustrated in Figure 1, but  they don’t dull the pain as quickly. How exactly has CVS figured out that short-acting opioids are better than long-acting ones for new patients? 


Figure 1. A comparison of blood levels of short-and-long acting pain medication.

But the CVS policy raises larger and more far-reaching concerns. Who is in charge of our own health? Why are laws being made that tell us how much medicine we can take? And, since when do pharmacists overrule physician decisions?

Unless there is an obvious prescribing error or a serious drug-drug interaction or any other pharmacological issue, they don’t (1). Until now. And you don’t want them to. It takes away a little more of your control of your own health, something that has been trickling away for years.

Why is CVS doing this now? I’ll speculate. During a crisis, it is always a good idea to hop on the “Let’s find someone to blame” bandwagon. It works splendidly, something that politicians and bureaucrats know quite well. Doctors and drug companies have taken the brunt of the blame (the FDA to a lesser extent) because they are easy and convenient targets. Yes, it’s true. There were some unscrupulous doctors who ran pill mills and did much damage. Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin got a $685 million spanking for promoting an exaggerated safety profile of the drug. And there are some other companies that don’t look so hot right now either. But blame is merely a distraction. Hundreds of people are dying every day and it’s not from the pills. There’s your crisis.

It is always easier to run with the crowd than swim against it, no matter which way it’s going. It did not take long for politicians to buy a one-way ticket in the wrong direction: “Sure, everyone knows that these damn pills are killing everyone, so let’s stop them,” they tell the public.  In what almost seems to be a tough guy contest, states are blindly following the CDC’s 2016 very flawed “advice” and passing some awful laws. If Kentucky enacts tough laws, then Florida better get tougher, as evidenced by Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed law that would allow a three-day maximum prescription unless strict conditions are met. What’s next? Mandatory bamboo under the fingernails tolerance workshops? If there’s a problem someone has to do something about it, right? If it’s the wrong thing, what are you gonna do? At least it sounded good.

But the worst problem with these already-flawed policies and laws is that they are based on the premise that pain patients got hooked on drugs and are now dying from fentanyl. This is false. There is ample evidence in the literature that very few pain patients become addicts; estimates range from .05-10%. (See: Heads In The Sand — The Real Cause Of Today’s Opioid Deaths.“) So the ill-conceived laws that are popping up like weeds and policies that CVS initiated are solving the wrong problem. In (supposedly) trying to protect pain patients from themselves, these policies do nothing but punish them with pain, terror, and despair while at the same time tying the hands of physicians who prescribed opioids wisely and responsibly. 

If CVS doesn’t know all of this, they should. If CVS does know this as well and doesn’t much care, you have to give them credit. Nicely played.


(1) In these cases, the pharmacist will consult the physician and offer advice if necessary. They are not overruling anyone. 

(2) Comments from the American Council’s physicians:

“I have an OB/Gyn colleague who prescribed antidepressants to her patient. The pharmacist refused to fill it saying not within the scope of her practice. The pharmacist’s role is not to be questioning a physician’s clinical skill or clinical decision-making. Leave doctoring to doctors.” Dr. Lila Abassi

“Pharmacists, as part of their licensure responsibility, should check prescriptions for accuracy in dosage and can question the use of medications especially in settings of allergies or cross-reactivity with other medications on a patient’s med list. I do not believe that a pharmacist can or should refuse to fill a prescription based on quantities to be dispensed without speaking directly to the prescribing physician.” Dr. Charles Dinerstein

“For pharmacists to be able to override a physician’s order, given the limited scope of their training and that they are not privy to a patient’s entire clinical picture (or medical history), could put a patient at greater risk. As is current practice, discussions with the treating physician to clarify concerns are always welcomed and encouraged before a pharmacist fills a prescription. But, not mandates–and one not in the best interest of the patient is simply unacceptable.”  Dr. Jamie Wells

It would seem that CVS is trying to “ride the wave” of public sentiment…  Abt one + year ago CVS eliminated all the sales of tobacco products… given that this is a LOW GROSS PROFIT MARGIN product and at risk of high pilferage … and was not a customer self-service item… so it is questionable if this category of product even produced a NET PROFIT, so… was this move toward a “more healthy image” for CVS or them “dumping” a unprofitable category and put a spin on it as being giving CVS a more of a “healthcare provider” image and not the convenient/variety store with a prescription dept in the back…that is reality.

CVS’ front end sales have been sliding for several years…

They are adding more “healthy snack product” to their inventory… placing them in the high visibility space that was previously occupied by what is now deemed “unhealthy snack foods” and moved those “unhealthy products” to less visible shelf space.

Even though use/abuse of tobacco products directly/indirectly contributes to abt 450,000/yr death, Many CVS stores continue to sell Alcohol products who use/abuse contributes to some 100,000/yr deaths…

Over the last decade, CVS has been fined tens to hundreds of millions of dollars by the DEA for what the DEA determined as “contributing to opiate diversion and addiction”.  Two of their stores in Sanford, FL were “ground zero” when the pill mill problem in FL erupted earlier in this decade.

Now CVS and its PBM subsidiary (Caremark/Silver Scripts) are jumping on the current  and revised “war on drugs” bandwagon ?  Will this denial of care to those with chronic pain and other subjective diseases just an attempt by CVS to get them in DEA’s “good graces” … since they are now a full fledged “partner” in fighting the war on drugs.

Which could means fewer fines for CVS and larger bottom line profits for CVS… if many pts end up suffering from untreated pain and/or ends up committing suicide because of the denial of care that they experience at the hands of CVS Health… just COLLATERAL DAMAGE so that CVS can make more profits ?


4 Responses

  1. CVS Pharmacist refused to fill a prescription for 90 Oxycodone, even though I had been a regular customer for years, and had the same Rx filled there many times. Pharmacist 1.) Lied and said she did not have ANY to fill a prescrip 2,) Assistant Pharmacist said they had over 500 in their system! 3.) confronted the original pharmacist and was told “I don’t have to fill “shit” for you” 4.) Called the regional manager, who happened to be down the street at another store, told me he’d be there in 15 minutes. 5,) Regional manager came, told him what the problem was, went and got the asshole pharmacist, and guess who they sided with?? I asked them what gave them the right to overrule a doctor? Response: because we control the drugs, and I have the authority to either allow them or tell you to get lost…and right now I am telling you “Get out of my store”…GLADLY…found me a pharmacist who has no problems filling my prescriptions now, because he is of the mindset, “who am I to play God with people’s medicine? If a Dr. prescribes 90 morphine tabs, then who am I to say if that patient is really suffering badly or not?….I am not their doctor, and I don’t get paid to play one either…on a sad note, I went thru a CVS drive thru one nite, trying to get a prescription filled for Oxycodone when the pharmacist ripped it up right if front of my face! That was NOT going to slide…I called my neurologist the next morning and oops….several days later, pharmacist is no longer working there! YEAH!!! 🙂 Keep treating chronic pain patients like crap…there is more than one way to skin a cat (CVS in this instance!) BAN CVS!!! BOYCOTT CVS!!!
    (Like any person in their right mind would go THERE to get prescriptions filled!!!)

    • Marcus File Complaints with the State pharmacy board. The issue with the CVS patient profiling and stigmatization of pain patients as addicts extends beyond merely boycotting them…They manage the prescription insurance benefit plans for many people who are now denied access to benefits they paid premiums on because they have been targeted through this opioid abuse profiling agenda. They are practicing medicine through the mail with zero accountability and even cancer and palliative care patients are discriminated against and targeted as addicts who abuse and miss use prescription medication.

  2. I have already boycotted CVS. As soon as they refuse to process my prescription. They not only lost all my prescriptions, but I use to get my flu shot there and always would drop extra money on miscellaneous items like shampoo toilet paper ECT. So I moved all my maintenance drugs to Wal-Mart. They don’t seem to be following in CVS’ S footsteps. Everyone needs to stick together and boycott CVS. Hit them in the wallet, and make them aware we don’t really need them.

  3. To all chronic pain patients: BOYCOTT CVS!!!L Do not shop there for ANYTHING!!!!!

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