Tip of the Week: Responsibilities of the Pharmacist-in-Charge

Pharmacy managers must maintain close control over operations, and this case makes a strong argument for taking care in selecting the right personnel.

The importance of compliance with employment law and with regulatory agencies cannot be undersold. This week’s Tip of the Week examines a specific court case involving the accountability of a pharmacist-in-charge.

In Sternberg vs. California State Board of Pharmacy, an appellate court affirmed a decision by a lower court supporting the California State Board of Pharmacy (Board) that subjected the pharmacist license of the plaintiff to disciplinary action following the discovery of widespread theft of a dangerous drug from the pharmacy by an employee who Andrew Sternberg supervised as the pharmacist-in-charge. During a 2-year period that Sternberg supervised a Target pharmacy, Imelda Hurtado, a pharmacy technician, stole at least 216,630 hydrocodone and acetaminophen (Norco) tablets from the pharmacy. Sternberg was subject to licensing discipline for the theft.

Hurtado accomplished the thefts by placing orders for up to 3000 tablets (6 bottles with 500 tablets per bottle) to be delivered to the pharmacy on a day she was scheduled to work. She did this approximately 85 times, as often as 3 times a week. When orders arrived, she would take the delivery to a work station farthest away from the pharmacist’s station, remove the 6 bottles and hide them in the store room, and destroy the packing invoice. When the pharmacist on duty took a lunch break, Hurtado would go to the store room, put 3 bottles in her purse, and take them out to her car. Later in the day, when the pharmacist was on a break, she would take the other 3 bottles to her car in the same manner.

Hurtado’s theft was discovered when Sternberg found a bottle of the hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets in the store room. The Target pharmacy normally did not sell this product, so Sternberg notified the store’s management, and a loss prevention investigation was initiated. Hurtado was eventually caught on surveillance and arrested with 3000 stolen tablets.

Based on this incident, the Board filed an accusation against Sternberg (as well as Target) alleging 6 causes for discipline, including but not limited to: violation of specific Business Professions Code for failure to maintain a complete and accurate record for all controlled substances; failing to maintain records of acquisition and disposition for 3 years; for allowing Hurtado, a nonpharmacist, to order and sign for 3 deliveries of the tablets; for failing to properly supervise Hurtado and allowing her to steal the drugs; for failing to secure and maintain the facilities, space, fixtures, and equipment from theft; and for failing to provide effective controls to prevent the theft of the drug and maintain records for this product.

Sternberg filed a notice of defense, requesting a hearing on the 6 grounds. After a hearing, an administrative law judge issued a proposed decision finding Sternberg liable on all but the fifth ground (secure and maintain facilities from theft), and proposing to publicly reprove him. The Board rejected that decision and instead found Sternberg liable on all 6 grounds, revoking his pharmacist’s license but staying the revocation and placing his license on probation for 3 years with specific conditions.

In its decision, the Board considered the scope of the theft “staggering,” particularly considering the pharmacy did not ordinarily sell these hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets, and there were no sales of the product at all during a 6-month period when Hurtado was not employed at the pharmacy. The Board further found Sternberg did not require the pharmacy to close while the pharmacist on duty went to lunch or implement other security measures to ensure adequate supervision of the pharmacy. According to the Board, had Sternberg properly supervised staff and conducted random checks of the containers that Sternberg was signing for, the thefts may have been discovered much sooner. The Board’s expert witness, who was also a pharmacist and whom the Board described as having “specialized knowledge and experience in this area,” stated that the pharmacist-in-charge’s legal duties included “overseeing the daily operations of the pharmacy and being the person responsible for their compliance with pharmacy law.”

Pharmacy managers have significant responsibilities, including responsibility for the persons who report to them, and this is much the case for the pharmacist-in-charge, a legally designated title. Pharmacy managers must maintain close control over operations. In addition, although it is nearly impossible to be absolutely perfect in the hiring process, this case makes a strong argument for taking care in selecting the right personnel.

Additional information about Human Resources Management and Compliance with Regulations and Regulatory Bodies can be found in Pharmacy Management: Essentials for All Practice Settings, 5e. You or your institution can subscribe to AccessPharmacy to access the textbook.

Shane P. Desselle, RPh, PhD, FAPhA, Professor of Social/Behavioral Pharmacy at Touro University California.

REFERENCE

Sternberg v. California State Board of Pharmacy (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 1159 California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Eight, Case No. B255862. https://www.pharmacy.ca.gov/enforcement/fy1516/sternberg_lexis.pdf​. Published August 26, 2015. Accessed on August 12, 2020.