Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Imagine going to the pharmacy to fill a prescription, only to be turned away, denied medication both you and your doctor know you need.
That's what's happening to patients across the area.
Patricia Kellner suffers from osteoporosis, spinal splinters and degenerative disc disease, "It's excruciating at times. I've had nerve blocks also and that's when it gets to the point where I'm totally immobilized."
Patricia's doctor, Mahesh Kuthuru, prescribes heavy duty meds for her pain but lately it's harder for her to get those prescriptions filled.
Chief Investigator Darcy Spears asked, "Do you feel like they're questioning you, suspicious that you are abusing? Selling?"
Patricia answered, "Yes. Yes. Yes."
Abuse of prescription painkillers, particularly oxycodone, is a serious problem, leaving real patients with real needs battling someone else's addiction.
Desert Pain Management sees between 300 and 500 patients a month and Dr. Kuthuru reports at least half of them have problems getting legitimate prescriptions filled.
"A lot of them are elderly. They are handicapped. They have complex medical conditions," said Dr. Kuthuru.
It's not just Dr. Kuthuru's patients who've run into roadblocks at local pharmacies.
"Before the surgery on my feet, you get up in the morning and it's just unbearable."
A patient named Tami suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. She had no problems filling her prescriptions for oxycodone at Walgreens and CVS over the last few years. Now? Delays and denials at both.
"You get the, "No, we're not going to fill it.' Well, why not? 'Well, you don't meet our criteria.'"
So what's changed?
In an effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency slapped Walgreens with $80 million in penalties last summer over violations at a distribution center and retail stores in Florida. In 2012, the feds pulled licenses to sell controlled substances from two Florida CVS stores.
Why would that affect Nevada patients? Our state board of pharmacy believes those large corporations have tightened procedures nationwide.
"But to just say no? And no reason? No excuse. No explanation. No nothing. You just get turned away," said Tami.
CVS sent us this statement:
"Federal law places a corresponding responsibility upon the pharmacist to ensure that a prescription for a controlled substance is issued for a legitimate medical purpose. If a pharmacist knows, or has reason to believe, that a controlled substance prescription is not issued for a legitimate medical purpose they cannot legally fill the prescription. Our pharmacists consider a variety of factors when evaluating a controlled substance prescriptions as part of their corresponding responsibility obligation. These factors are taken into consideration when pharmacists exercise their professional judgment in determining the appropriateness of filling prescriptions for controlled substances."
And CVS sent an additional statement when we asked about the federal law enforcement activity in 2012:
"We previously responded to the DEA’s concerns by enhancing our policies and procedures for filling controlled substance prescriptions. We believe these changes further support our pharmacists as they exercise their professional judgment to ensure that prescriptions they fill have been issued for legitimate medical purposes."
Dr. Kuthuru believes that could cross the line into pharmacies practicing medicine.
"I disagree with the pharmacies making decisions on behalf of the patients or on behalf of the doctors."
Walgreens sent this response:
"With the sharp rise in the abuse of prescription painkillers in recent years, health care professionals in all practices are continuously striving to find better ways of ensuring those medications are used only for legitimate medical purposes. We are working to ensure our patients continue to have access to the medications they need while fulfilling our role in reducing the potential abuse of controlled substances. We have over recent months taken a number of steps to provide additional guidance and training to our pharmacies on the proper handling of controlled substances. Because of the legal requirements placed on pharmacists to verify that controlled substance prescriptions are issued for a legitimate medical purpose, pharmacists may need to gather additional patient information from their prescribing physician's office. This diligence may take extra time.
For example, under our good faith dispensing policy, pharmacists may determine that they first need to check the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database for anything unusual. They may also decide to contact the prescribing doctor's office to verify the diagnosis and confirm that the patient has had a recent examination. Often, this information can be obtained from a member of the doctor's staff.
We firmly believe that addressing prescription drug abuse will require all parties - including leaders in the community, physicians, pharmacies, distributors and regulators - to play a role in finding practical solutions to combating abuse while balancing patient access to critical medication."
And Walgreens added the following information after we asked about the federal law enforcement activity in Florida.
"Our agreement with the DEA provided us direction going forward on specific measures the DEA wanted to see enacted and clarified compliance steps moving forward. In fact, we had already taken many of those measures before the agreement was announced.
While I can’t comment on specific doctors or detailed procedures, I can tell you as I mentioned earlier that under our good faith dispensing policy, pharmacists may determine that they first need to check the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database for anything unusual. They may also decide to contact the prescribing doctor's office to verify the diagnosis and confirm that the patient has had a recent examination."
For patients like Tami that means running all over town. Last month she says she went to nearly 10 pharmacies to fill her prescriptions.
The problem has gotten so bad Dr. Kuthuru is asking lawmakers for help. The state's advice to patients who are denied? Try another pharmacy or talk to their doctors about pain management alternatives.