Preventing Prescription Drug Thefts from Pharmacies

A look at recent crimes and what every pharmacy security director should think about when planning security, access and response plans for their pharmacies


Pharmacies present a unique challenge in the healthcare setting due to the attractive nature of the goods and cash associated with their operation. There have been an increasing number of attacks on pharmacies, especially targeting such drugs as OxyContin, a narcotic painkiller that is in increasingly high demand on the street. In fact, OxyContin targeted armed robberies are rising at an alarming rate. The following robbery figures were presented to the Senate by leading pharmacy retailer CVS in 2002 from data of its stores:

1998: Total robberies - 7, Armed robberies - 1
1999: Total robberies - 27, Armed robberies - 5
2000: Total robberies - 25, Armed robberies - 2
2001: Total robberies - 105, Armed robberies - 87
2002, From Jan. 1, to Feb. 7: Total robberies - 13, Armed robberies - 13 (100 percent of total

The state of Massachusetts has the highest number of armed robberies of OxyContin in the nation, with 79 in just the first four months of 2004, according to public safety officials. In addition to Massachusetts, OxyContin armed robberies have already been reported in Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, Indiana and Rhode Island. In one Boston pharmacy the threat of robbery and burglary is so significant that employees of pharmacies are informed to tell callers they do not carry the drug. Other pharmacies post signs on the front of their buildings indicating that OxyContin is not carried. To defend against these and other threats, pharmacy managers and owners must take the appropriate steps to safeguard employees and assets. This article addresses the threats to pharmacy security and the risks that result from operating with vulnerabilities, and looks at sound security principles to consider when determining how to secure your pharmacy.

The Threats Posed to Pharmacy Operations

To have an effective security program, it is essential to understand the threats that pose a risk to personnel and assets. For pharmacies, there are a number of relevant threats that originate from both internal and external sources. In hospitals, employees working for other departments such as nursing, maintenance, janitorial or security can cause losses by virtue of their access to the pharmacy, and nurses involved in drug diversion can create a risk to patient safety. Employees such as pharmacists, technicians and clerks working inside the pharmacy pose a similar risk to assets due to their uncontrolled access. For example, a pharmacy technician was arrested on Oct. 8 of this year after authorities say she stole more than a thousand hydrocodone pills, a stash worth several hundred dollars, from a Walgreens in Hernando, Fla.

Criminals financially motivated may engage in burglary to acquire drugs such as OxyContin or even flu vaccinations that have a significant street value. In a recent case, burglars stole powerful painkillers and anti-depressants from four pharmacies in Luzerne County, Penn. Police said the burglars knew what they wanted and how to get it. In one pharmacy the owner told reporters that, "The burglars disarmed the alarm system, pried open the door, then headed straight for the pills." The disarming of the alarm system was likely achieved by simply cutting the phone line. If phone lines are vulnerable to tampering as they enter a facility, a cellular back up system should be considered if there is an elevated burglary risk.

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