Crime and Justice

Walgreens pushes back on allegations that it put Vermonters at risk during Covid-19 pandemic

The Walgreens on Susie Wilson Road in Essex Junction. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Walgreens is defending itself against allegations that the company had threatened Vermonters’ health and safety during the Covid-19 pandemic, writing in a legal filing last week that the pharmacy giant had “provided reasonable care to its patients while grappling with contingencies that impacted pharmacists nationwide.”

The dispute stems from charges, filed in June by the Vermont Office of Professional Regulation, that the company had put customers at risk with staffing shortages, unplanned closures, and dangerous and unprofessional conduct at its 32 Vermont locations. 

In a 40-page document of charges, state regulators alleged that Walgreens locations closed unexpectedly on more than 325 days, “leaving thousands of patients without access to prescription medications.”

In addition to unexpected store closures, the allegations include stores losing track of controlled substances and medication and vaccination errors. In October 2021, according to the charging document, a patient at the Pearl Street Walgreens in Essex Junction was given a Pfizer Covid booster instead of the flu shot they requested. 

Some locations also gave customers the wrong medication or administered it incorrectly, state regulators alleged. State officials also alleged that the company did not respond appropriately to complaints about staffing shortages and unsafe conditions at stores. 

The office asked the Vermont Board of Pharmacy to “revoke, suspend, reprimand, condition or otherwise discipline the licenses” of Walgreens.

But Walgreens argued in an Aug. 18 filing that the chain was being held to an unfair standard and asked a judge to dismiss the claims.  

The pharmacy had no intention to close the locations, attorneys for the company argued, but was forced to due to the pandemic, as well as other factors — such as a computer malfunction and fire — that were outside its control.

Some customers who were unable to receive their medication at Walgreens simply went to another pharmacy, the company noted. 

Regulators had also overcounted how many days the chain’s stores were shut, Walgreens argued, noting that internal data showed that some alleged closures had not taken place. 

The company also alleged that state regulators were violating its right to due process, and argued that a Vermont statute stating that “discipline against any one drug outlet in a chain may be imposed against all drug outlets in a chain” violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. 

“This statute is discriminatory against chain pharmacies, giving (the Office of Professional Regulation) latitude to disproportionately impose discipline against individual locations in a chain whose conduct does not meet the thresholds” for discipline, Walgreens attorneys argued. 

Walgreens, “like the rest of the nation, could not fully anticipate the impact of the extremely contagious pandemic, and thus, while its operations were admittedly not perfect, they were not in violation of the Vermont statutes,” attorneys said in the filing. “Indeed, (the company) continued to resiliently operate during the pandemic to help, not harm, the community’s health.”

S. Lauren Hibbert, director of the Office of Professional Regulation, previously told VTDigger that the charges stem from 70 complaints filed by Walgreens employees and customers, as well as employees of other Vermont pharmacies.

The latest filing was first reported by The Bennington Banner.

Hibbert declined to comment on Walgreens' response, saying officials were waiting for a ruling on the filings. 

George Belcher, a retired Washington County probate judge, has been assigned as the presiding officer for the Pharmacy Board in the case.

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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