Why Aren’t Pharmacies Filling My Patient’s Life-Saving Medication?

Abt 15 yrs ago, I was working only as a “temp/locum” Pharmacist as an independent contractor. I had signed up with several Pharmacist temp services and I was working in all kinds of community pharmacies from independent pharmacies to Big Box stores. The technician brought to me a refill for a Suboxone, which was a couple of days early, had refills, but the pt’s insurance was not going to approve paying for it a couple of days early.  The technician offered the pt the cash price for the 2-3 tablets that he needed and the cost was too much for him to afford. I walked out front to talk to him, and he was obviously very upset. He was concerned that not having those 2-3 doses, his attempt to get sober may be compromised.  I always try to be a problem solver. In talking to this young man, I mentioned that insurance companies will often pay for early refills for someone going on vacation. “Did I hear you say that you were going on vacation and that was the reason for this early refill?”.  It took the young man a couple of minutes to catch on what I was asking. I asked him if he would like to use the pharmacy’s phone to call his insurance company to see if they would provide an “early vacation refill authorization”?  He made the phone call to his insurance and they approved the early refill, we filled his Rx for the 30-day supply that he could afford and he went happily on his way. Was he able to successfully get sober and stay sober? I don’t know because I was at this Big Box pharmacy that one day and knew that my “just saying no” to his refill, may have caused him to break his path to sobriety.

Why Aren’t Pharmacies Filling My Patient’s Life-Saving Medication?


I sat on the phone yesterday consoling a single mother going through heroin withdrawal. In between bouts of vomiting and dry heaving, she pleaded, “When will I be able to pick up the medication you ordered that stops all of this?” This mother had already overcome significant barriers Americans face when seeking addiction treatment, including stigma associated with treatment, affordability of treatment, and finding high quality, highly trained addiction specialists. I had prescribed an FDA-approved addiction treatment medication that reduced her chance of death from addiction by more than 50%. Seemed like it should be a happy ending. Instead, she found her local pharmacy refusing to fill the prescription.

That pharmacy’s response is just one example of a troubling, growing trend. Pharmacies across the country are refusing to fill the life-saving addiction treatment medication buprenorphine/naloxone. As a multi-state licensed addiction psychiatrist, I find myself in daily debates across the country with major retail pharmacy chains who refuse to fill this medication. The DEA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAHMSA) have both issued recent policy statements urging health care practitioners and pharmacies alike to increase access to this medication with fully telehealth treatment of substance use disorders.

Why are so many pharmacies refusing to fill valid, legal, physician-issued prescriptions for the single most important and effective medication used to treat addiction? The answer, ironically, lies in recent well-meaning landmark court proceedings designed to decrease the opioid epidemic.

In late 2022, CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart were forced to pay an eye-popping $10.7 billion to settle allegations that the pharmacy chains failed to adequately oversee opioid painkiller prescriptions, thus contributing to America’s opioid addiction crisis. CVS alone agreed to pay nearly $5 billion in fines over 10 years, while Walgreens would pay $5.7 billion over 15 years. With this decision, the pharmacy chains also agreed to implement robust “controlled substance compliance programs” that required additional layers of opioid prescription reviews, mandatory state prescription pharmacy database checks, and new employee training programs on prescription monitoring oversight.

This well-meaning legislation was designed to rightfully reduce access to dangerous and addictive prescription opioid drugs like Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin, among others — drugs which are gateways to opioid addiction and are often involved in opioid overdose deaths. Buprenorphine is also a controlled substance, although it contains a very low, weakened amount of a “partial” opioid to treat withdrawal and ultimately has a very different, safer chemical make up than traditional opioids. The chemical makeup is designed to prevent people from getting high on it. It also contains the opioid overdose agent Naloxone or “Narcan,” which further reduces abuse potential. These important differences make it a safe, effective, FDA-approved medication designed to treat addiction, not cause or worsen it. Despite all of these important differences, some pharmacies continue to lump it in with other opioid medications. Ironically, the very measures designed to curb addiction are now resulting in less access to our most important medications used to fight addiction.

I spend a significant portion of my days trying to convince pharmacists to fill these prescriptions. Pharmacists’ objections to refilling the meds include: “The patient lives too far away from your treatment facility,” “You did not see the patient in person,” or “There is no previous prescription for buprenorphine on file for this patient.” Pharmacists concerned with no previous prescription is puzzling. Luckily, due to increased addiction treatment access, many patients are starting to treat their opioid use disorder for the first time — and this is a good thing! It means we are broadening treatment access to more folks who need it most and saving more lives.

I’m successful in convincing the pharmacist to ultimately dispense the drug about half of the time. After an hour on the phone with the pharmacist, I addressed all of her questions and she dispensed the prescription to the single mother waiting outside in the grocery store parking lot. Many other times, my patients are forced to pharmacy hop until we find an understanding and well-informed pharmacist. It is tiring and exhausting.

What is the solution? We desperately need advocacy help from our high-profile medical stakeholders, as well as more pharmacist education and training on buprenorphine. It would be helpful if the DEA, the American Medical Society, and SAMHSA released specific policy statements encouraging all pharmacies to fill these prescriptions without geographic, mileage, or in-person requirements. If you are a pharmacist reading this article right now, please share it with as many of your colleagues as possible to spread the word: we need your help!

The best way to quickly curb the opioid epidemic is increased access to effective treatment. This is one of very few life-saving addiction treatments in our medicine arsenal. Its effects on mortality rates mean that your loved one suffering from opioid use disorder is more than twice as likely to survive with this medication. We need help reducing well-meaning but misinformed pharmacy red tape to its access. We owe this to the American public. We owe this to our friends, family members, and loved ones whose lives are jeopardized by addiction. We owe this to our children. We owe this to the more than 500,000 people we’ve lost in the U.S. in the past two decades due to overdose. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Now more than ever, we need loud, passionate advocacy from you: our good people.

Dr. Lauren Grawert is a double board certified addiction psychiatrist. She received her medical degree from Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine and has been in practice 15 years. She speaks multiple languages, including Spanish. She was Chief of Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic from 2018-2022. She is currently the Chief Medical Officer at Aware Recovery Care. She enjoys working with the media in her spare time to reduce stigma around mental illness and addiction. She has been interviewed by SAMHSA on Co-Occurring Disorders and most recently published articles in Capital Psychiatry and Northern Virginia Magazine.

2 Responses

  1. Blame the DEA. As mentioned by the previous comment, the DEA has mystical quotas that make pharmacies live in fear of being shut down if we fill an amount of controls above it. Of course, wholesalers and manufacturers limit sales because of the same thing.
    With PMP available to physicians and pharmacies, the amount on the street has fallen dramatically coming from prescriptions. This was not available during the opioid crisis. As pointed out in the article, we now have a situation of people not getting their medication, which violates the very reason reason what has always been a tenant of healthcare, to treat those who are sick.
    All this oppressive fear of being shut down for filling a valid script written by a doctor with a valid DEA license issued by the, you guessed it, DEA.
    All the while, a report recently came out that fentanyl is the leading cause of death of people 45 years and younger.
    I think that’s where the emphasis should be, on the illegal fentanyl coming into the US.
    Congress is the only one that the DEA listens to. That’s where the answer ultimately lies that come bring some common sense to this.

  2. The court ruling ALSO put each pharmacy on a monthly quota, which is unknown to the pharmacy, so when they are over their quota for controlled medication, they cannot get delivery of more. Because of this limbo state of not knowing if they are getting more and what and how much to order, they are now getting screwed along with the rest of us.

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