Methadone patients left in lurch

Downtown Pharmacy can’t dispense medication until further notice

Colin MacLean
Published on May 8, 2012
A notice in the window of Downtown Pharmacy advises methadone patients to go to the Opioid Treatment Centre for their medication. The pharmacy has stopped dispensing the drug after losing its business licence. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Methadone patients in St. John’s have been left scrambling to find a pharmacist after Downtown Pharmacy on Water Street abruptly lost its business licence Monday morning.

Until further notice the dispensary of Downtown Pharmacy will be closed.

The pharmacist-in-charge (PIC) is stepping down, leaving no one working at the pharmacy allowed to take the position.

The Pharmacy Board of Newfoundland and Labrador issued a news release Monday morning stating that in light of the PIC’s decision it had no choice but to follow the rules laid out in the Pharmacy Act and terminate the business’s licence.

Board secretary-registrar Don Rowe declined to discuss the reasoning the PIC gave for quitting, but he did comment on what the end result will be for patients.

“Obviously, our major concern initially, besides where we go in the future, is for the patients who are on methadone. They require daily dosing and they have to go to the pharmacy to get the doses, for the most part. We’ve been trying to accommodate them,” Rowe said.

Downtown Pharmacy is one of only a handful of pharmacies in the St. John’s area that dispenses methadone.

It’s a tremendous responsibility for pharmacists to take on methadone patients, said Rowe, because they require the medication every day and must be observed taking it unless in certain circumstances, and there is always the chance for relapses or non-compliance with the dosage rules.

“Just as there are a very limited number of doctors with the authority to prescribe methadone, there’s only a limited number of pharmacies willing to take on the responsibilities of treating methadone patients. There’s roughly about half a dozen pharmacies in town accepting methadone patients. Some of those have large numbers themselves and it’s questionable how many additional people they are willing to accommodate,” he said.

Impact expected

The sudden influx of another pharmacy’s methadone patients into a system that is already stretched thin is worrisome, said Ron Fitzpatrick, executive director of Turnings.

Turnings is an organization devoted to helping ex-offenders get back on their feet and find the services they require. It also has a drug awareness campaign for young people.

Fitzpatrick said he suspects the loss of Downtown Pharmacy’s dispensary will be minimal for patients, other than being an inconvenience. But he worries about the effect the extra patients could have on the staff at the Opioid Treatment Centre in Pleasantville, which is where patients are being temporarily directed.

“It’s going to have an impact. It’s going to increase the workload and it’s going to slow everything up down there,” he said.

Arranging appointments

But Eastern Health says that is not the case.

Methadone patients of Downtown Pharmacy are being asked to contact the centre at 752-4478 to arrange appointments to get their medication — but they will get it in a timely fashion, said a spokesperson with the health-care provider.

The centre will stay open past business hours for as long as it takes for these displaced patients to find new pharmacists. Eastern Health says these extended measures will help the them avoid a backlog and increasing the wait time for people who already get their medication from the centre.

Downtown Pharmacy patients will be able to get their medication between 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. as long as they call ahead.

Any other patients of the pharmacy should contact their family physician to renew their prescriptions. Anyone in an emergency situation should contact another pharmacy for a temporary supply of needed medication.

Patients can also contact the Newfoundland and Labrador HealthLine at 1-888-709-2929 (TTY 1-888-709-3555) for more information on their prescriptions.

Downtown Pharmacy has been in the media a lot over the past year.

Its owner/pharmacist, Paul Gill, has been restricted from being a PIC since November 2011, a restriction that will continue until November 2016, at which time he may apply to have that ability reinstated.

Gill was reprimanded by an adjudication tribunal under the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board in April.

He was pharmacist-in-charge while Ann Marie Burke was working at the Downtown Pharmacy. Burke illegally obtained prescription narcotics while working as a pharmacist — feeding her own addiction to painkillers while also trafficking in the drugs. She was sentenced to two years in jail in November 2011.

After Gill was suspended, a second pharmacist took over as PIC and held that position until Sunday night, when he tendered his resignation.

Twitter: @TelegramMacLean