By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Carolyn Eastin has been a nurse practitioner in Arizona for nearly a decade. She is the only licensed prescriber at a busy pain clinic in Scottsdale, where many patients are on high doses of opioid medication.
Eastin says she was “mortified” by a letter last month from Walmart’s corporate headquarters that said the retail giant’s Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies would no longer fill her prescriptions for opioids.
“In reviewing your controlled substance prescribing patterns and other factors, we have determined that we will no longer be able to continue filling your controlled substance prescriptions,” the letter states. “We regret any inconvenience this may cause you or your patients.”
“It was very humiliating. I was upset about it,” says Eastin. “We’ve already had patients who can’t get prescriptions there.”
The unsigned Walmart letter has all the appearances of a form letter. It makes no mention of any complaints against Eastin, whether any of her patients have overdosed, or if her prescribing is medically inappropriate.
Eastin writes prescriptions for nearly 500 chronic pain patients at the Absolute Rehabilitation and Pain Medicine clinic. Most are on high doses of opioids, at levels well above those recommended by the CDC in its 2016 opioid guideline. Eastin believes she was red flagged by Walmart after a prescription database search and is now on a “blacklist” of prescribers.
“I’m the only one who writes prescriptions here. So I would have higher numbers than the average nurse practitioner,” she told PNN. “I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m tapering my patients. I’m trying to do my part to bring people into compliance.”
Does Walmart blacklist doctors who prescribe high doses of opioids? Is Walmart practicing medicine without a license? We posed those questions to Walmart and received a one sentence reply.
“Walmart does not comment on our patients or their prescribers,” wrote Erin Hulliberger, Walmart Corporate Communications in an email.
What Walmart is doing isn’t illegal. Under federal law, pharmacists have a “corresponding responsibility” when filling medications -- a legal right to refuse to fill prescriptions they consider unusual or improper. Most pharmacists will call the prescribing doctor to double-check before turning away a patient, but in some cases there’s a “hard edit” – pharmacy jargon for when a company database tells a pharmacist not fill a prescription.
“It may be appropriate for a pharmacy to not fill a prescription because of a dangerous dose or even an inappropriate drug,” says Lynn Webster, MD, a pain management expert and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
“However, if they are refusing to fill a prescription because the doctor has met some arbitrary dosage threshold by the company without understanding the circumstances, it would be inappropriate and potentially harmful to the patient.”
A former Walmart pharmacist told PNN the company closely monitors prescriptions and doctors at every store.
“They had assembled prescription numbers for every doctor who had filled prescriptions at my store. They knew the exact number of medications ordered and sold down to the tablet. They knew what drugs the doctors wrote for and what percentage of the total each drug they wrote for," said the pharmacist, who asked to remain anonymous.
Walmart recently began using Narxcare, a private healthcare database developed by Appriss Health, which analyzes the prescriptions and medical claims of millions of Americans. Every patient evaluated by NarxCare is assigned a “risk score” based on the past two years of their prescription drug use, medical claims, electronic health records and even their criminal history.
Is Walmart using Narxcare data to blacklist doctors? A spokesman for Appriss denies it.
“No, we do not provide provider risk scores to Walmart, or anyone else,” said David Griffin, Vice President of market and communication for Appriss Health.
Prescription Data Mining
The data mining of opioid prescriptions has become increasingly common in healthcare and law enforcement. Doctors, pharmacies, insurers, and federal and state regulators are all using prescription drug databases to look for signs of opioid “overprescribing.”
In addition to Walmart, the Absolute clinic has drawn the attention of the Arizona Medical Board. Last year the clinic’s owner, Dr. Steve Fanto, signed an agreement with the medical board to stop practicing medicine after he was accused of overprescribing Subsys, a potent fentanyl spray.
Although Fanto is no longer involved in the day-to-day management of the Absolute clinic, it remains under scrutiny. Last December, the clinic was raided by DEA agents, although no charges were ever filed as a result of that investigation. The clinic has also received over a hundred letters from insurer United Healthcare warning about the high dose prescriptions Carolyn Eastin is writing.
“It’s a bullying technique,” says Jessica Webb, the office manager at Absolute. “We’re afraid if we don’t taper down, the insurance companies will file a complaint on Carolyn. If Carolyn’s license is revoked, we’ll have to shut down. She’s the only reason we’re still open.”
Caught in the middle of this tug of war are Absolute’s patients – who could be faced with the difficult task of finding new doctors if the clinic closes. Their painful medical conditions -- and the human suffering that comes with them – appear to be non-factors in Walmart’s decision not to fill Eastin’s prescriptions.
“I can’t tell you the number of patients that made the comment to me, ‘I might as well die. I don’t have any other options but to take my own life because I can’t live without this medication,’” Eastin said. “It’s very difficult to look these people in the eye every single day and say, ‘I want to help you but I’m going to take more away from you.’”
‘I Hope It Doesn’t Harm Patients’
Pain management experts say its unethical to use data mining alone to judge whether a prescription should be filled.
“It appears that Walmart is trying to reduce their risk of being charged with criminal conduct and paying more fines. It is hard to know. But whatever their reason I hope it doesn't harm patients,” said Webster.
“Without further explanation about the basis for their decision, and without information about any previous interventions attempted by Walmart, this seems remarkably punitive and capricious,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.
“I would hope that companies that review prescriber records would attempt a series of less drastic interventions with the prescriber before reaching this point. There may be issues of concern, but the appropriate step is to discuss those with the prescriber and try to reach an understanding about what is going on, and about what needs to happen to ensure that everyone is prescribing and dispensing safely. I’d be interested to hear from Walmart about whether they have such a graduated policy and if not, why not.”
Carolyn Eastin says there’s only so much she can do. Abruptly tapering patients or cutting them off from opioids could cause more harm than good.
“We’re trying to follow the CDC guidelines. We’re trying to comply with the insurance letters asking for tapers,” she says. “I’m doing my part to taper my patients. But these things have to be done delicately. We just can’t go, ‘Okay, give me all your meds.’”
“We’ve pushed them to get physical therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, and patients are having good results with that,” says Jessica Webb. “But we have some patients, if I had to take their meds away, I couldn’t go to sleep at night. They’re that sick.”