New rules mean new questions at East Tennessee pharmacies

7:15 PM, Nov 30, 2011   |    comments
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New rules that will soon be in effect statewide could mean more questions at the pharmacy counter.

It all has to do with the effort to combat methamphetamine. 

"It really helps to stop it now, before that meth is made, before illegal actions go on, if we can stop it at the point of purchase of one of the key ingredients," said Tara Moore, a pharmacist at Belew Drug on North Broadway in Knoxville.

Starting Jan. 1, all pharmacies statewide will be required to input every sale of pseudoephedrine into an Internet database. Pharmacists also will be required to consult with every patient. 

Belew Drug already has made the switch.

"This was created for a reason," Moore said. "It does not label everyone who takes pseudoephedrine a drug abuser or a meth-maker. What it does is try to isolate those individuals so that we can stop the horrible problem that actually plagues East Tennessee terribly."

Already, pharmacists have been required to keep a paper log of the sales which are then turned over to state authorities. Moore said, oftentimes, officials have used that gathered information to track down meth-makers and meth labs.

However that paper trail had its issues.

"If you think about Broadway and the locations of pharmacies, you could hit six to eight pharmacies inside a, what, three- to five-mile radius, and all of us doing what we are to do by law, recording it on paper, have no idea that those other purchases have been made," she said.

The new Internet database aims to change that by providing real-time information to the pharmacists. Once they input the information for a particular sale, the computer will respond, either making a record of the legitimate sale, or sending an error message that instructs a pharmacist to block the sale. That happens when a patient has exceeded the medication limit allowed by law -- 3.6 grams per day and 9 grams per month.

At Belew, that happens about once a week.

"It gives us a better tool to know sooner and know more readily if we have an individual who perhaps is trying to purchase for illegal use," Moore said.

The database can be accessed by pharmacies statewide and those in other states using the system, along with law enforcement agencies, according to state officials.

Meanwhile, pharmacists will also be taking some more time with patients, asking them questions about their symptoms.

"If they can't knowledgeably talk to us about their symptoms and tell us what they're experiencing and why they need the drug, then they're gonna stumble on that, and that's gonna be obvious to us," Moore said. "If, for professional reasons, we believe that the dispensing of this medication is not in accordance with the law or it's not perhaps what this patient really needs, and when I say that, I mean it's maybe being used for another purpose, we can always refuse to fill the medication or refuse to sell, in this case, the pseudoephedrine."

This puts pharmacists on the front line, more than ever, and state officials said that was part of a long discussion that took place among the state's pharmacists, according to Baeteena Black, executive director for the Tennessee Pharmacists Association.

In the end, Black said the association decided to get on board with the law, partly because the alternative could have meant requiring patients to get a doctor's prescription for the medication.

"We want to help our patients maintain access to a very safe and effective drug," Black said. "We're willing to do our part as healthcare providers to help police this situation such that those who don't have a legitimate need do not have access to the product."

And while it may mean a longer experience at the pharmacy, experts said it's an effort that has to happen for the good of the state.

"Legitimate patients should have no problem getting their medication, just like they always have, one little, simple conversation with a pharmacist or pharmacy student, and for those who don't have a legitimate need, we feel like that their ability to get access is going to end in our state," Black said.

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