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Recent robberies put pharmacies on edge

Michael Nastro, pharmacist and owner of Fairview Pharmacy

Michael Nastro, pharmacist and owner of Fairview Pharmacy and Homecare Supply on Nesconset Highway in Port Jefferson Station. (Jan. 4, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Pharmacists across Long Island are racing to protect themselves by installing bulletproof glass, security cameras and panic buttons -- as well as seeking gun permits -- because of violence linked to prescription pain pill abuse.

Some pharmacies are hiring retired cops, cutting back on store hours and even refusing to fill prescriptions for painkillers.

Two of the pharmacies robbed last year in Nassau and Suffolk -- Haven Drugs in Medford, where pill abuser David Laffer executed four people on Father's Day, and Charlie's Family Pharmacy in Seaford, where ATF agent John Capano and a man suspected of stealing painkillers were killed on Dec. 31 -- were small neighborhood shops.


Increasing security

"Now, I'm going to come to work and risk being murdered?" said Don Cantalino, owner of Uniondale Chemists. He has applied for a Nassau County pistol permit. "My new theory is that I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six."

"All pharmacists are afraid now, absolutely," said Joanne Hoffman Beechko, an East Northport pharmacist who is president of the Long Island Pharmacists Society.

Forged prescriptions for opiate painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and oxymorphone are a growing worry among pharmacists, as they find themselves trying to fend off drug abusers adept at getting around anti-fraud measures. Newsday has reported that Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady, acquired nearly 12,000 pain pills in the four years leading up to the killings.

"These people know what they're doing," said Michael Nastro, owner of Fairview Pharmacy and Home Care Supplies, whose store is minutes from the Medford pharmacy where Laffer killed four people. "They're not dumb. They're very well-versed in what they do."

Nastro has applied for a pistol permit, installed panic buttons throughout the store and hired a retired New York City police officer to provide security.

"This is very unnerving," he said. "When you're dealing with narcotics abusers, opiate abusers, you're not dealing with rational people."

For pharmacies, built on personal interaction and customer trust, taking extraordinary steps to ensure security puts them in an uncomfortable position.

At one Hempstead pharmacy, the owners have decided to install bulletproof glass -- sometimes called a "bandit barrier" -- with a Kevlar-reinforced wall, said one of the owners, Jonathan Podlaski.

"It's a shame because in a community pharmacy, you want to be able to come out from behind the counter," he said. "Now coming out from behind the counter is risking your life."

He asked that the name of his store not be published out of the fear that it would make it more of a target.

"Independent pharmacies are definitely ramping up their security," said Brendan Healy, executive director of Infragard, a nonprofit group that promotes security for Long Island businesses.

According to state figures, 251 of the 599 pharmacies on Long Island are independent operations.

Ashley Flowers, spokeswoman for Rite-Aid, one of the three large chain drugstores on Long Island, said the company does not comment on security, but said, "A safe shopping environment for our customers is one of our top priorities."


Spotting forgeries

In addition to new security measures, pharmacists say they are scanning prescriptions for telltale signs of forgery, fielding calls from people asking if they have oxycodone, and eyeing suspicious customers as possible doctor shoppers.

"I'm like the oxycodone policeman," Cantalino said.

Newsday reported last month that a state database meant to curb doctor shopping is available only to physicians and not pharmacists.

Drug abusers use a variety of gambits in trying to get narcotics. They may use stolen prescriptions, alter a real prescription or even write a fake phone number so that anyone calling to check the prescription winds up calling someone in on the scam. Sometimes they insist on paying cash to avoid a check of their insurance, which would show whether they had filled a similar prescription in the recent past.

Ollon Downing, a part-time pharmacist at Charlie's Family Pharmacy in Seaford, said he turns away suspicious prescriptions a few times a week.

"If you're a pharmacist, you can pretty much spot a phony," he said. "A lot of people don't realize pharmacy has become a dangerous profession."

An immediate red flag is someone who lives in one community, saw a doctor in a different one, and is filling the prescription somewhere else. Another is a prescription written for an odd quantity, or when someone insists on a particular brand name for certain drugs, as they are worth more than generics when sold on the street, pharmacists say.

Some law enforcement officials have speculated that the increased scrutiny on painkillers by regulators and the media has made it harder for addicts to get their drugs from doctors -- leading to desperate acts like armed robberies.

However, data from IMS Health, a Danbury, Conn.-based health care information and research company, shows the spotlight is not impacting the number of prescriptions written.

In November of last year, Americans filled 17.8 million prescriptions for pain pills, up from 17.4 million the November before. In October of last year, 17.6 million prescriptions for pain pills were written, according to IMS Health.


Law enforcement steps in

Beyond individual pharmacies, law enforcement officials have stepped up their own efforts to improve security at area pharmacies. In Nassau, officials have compiled a list of potentially "vulnerable pharmacies" to assist police, said Katie Grilli-Robles, spokeswoman for County Executive Edward Mangano. The list helps police identify where problems might occur, officials said.

The list was created by reviewing the state's Medicaid database for signs of fraud, criminal activity and doctor shopping, where suspected abusers visit multiple doctors and pharmacies, said Scott Skrynecki, investigations director for Nassau's Department of Social Services. His office also looks at the volume of frequently abused drugs at a particular location along with information gleaned from investigators' field work.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota has convened a special grand jury, which began on Friday, to investigate the state's oversight of prescription pills, doctor shopping and the possible criminal conduct of doctors in prescribing pain pills.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last week called on the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to provide guidelines to Long Island pharmacies to help create enhanced security strategies as a deterrent to thieves. Schumer noted that bulletproof glass, timed safes, staggering drug supplies and silent alarms can stop robberies.

The backdrop to the killings in the two Long Island pharmacies is an increase nationwide in pharmacy robberies of controlled substances -- from 385 in 2006 to 688 in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the DEA.

In New York State, robberies rose from four in 2006 to 30 in 2010, according to the DEA figures.

Exact numbers for Long Island were not available because local police departments have not been breaking out pharmacy robberies separately, officials said. Nassau began tallying pharmacy robberies separately in August, two months after the Medford killings. Suffolk police say they could not provide an exact number of pharmacy robberies in the county.

Newsday reported on nine pharmacy robberies and one attempted pharmacy robbery in Nassau and Suffolk last year.

Howard Levine, owner of Belmont Drugs in West Babylon and executive director of the Long Island Pharmacists Association, was so alarmed after his store was held up by a gunman in November 2010 that he decided to stop carrying most oxycodone and OxyContin products and, at the advice of the DEA, put up a sign telling customers just that. Nonetheless, his store was held up again three months later by the same robber, he said.

Gary Cohen, the supervising pharmacist at Stat Script Specialty Pharmacy in Huntington Station, said that drug abusers share information about where to get drugs. They do it in person and in online blogs.

Since Cohen's store was burglarized last year, the owner has installed cameras and a security gate. But Cohen said he's reluctant to take steps such as bulletproof glass because he wants to be a community pharmacy.

"You can't be fearful," he said. "You can't let a couple of crazy nuts stop everything for you."

But, he added, "Maybe one day, I'll regret everything I just said about that."

With Emily C. Dooley