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Walgreens Will Pay $7.5 Million to Settle Unlicensed-Pharmacist Claims


Walgreens will pay $7.5 million to settle allegations that for more than a decade it let an unlicensed pharmacist handle hundreds of thousands of prescriptions, including some for highly addictive painkillers, the authorities in California said on Monday, another setback for a company already facing broader accusations that it helped feed the opioid epidemic.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, one of two San Francisco Bay Area agencies that sued Walgreens, said that the employee, Kim Thien Le, 44, handled more than 745,000 prescriptions, including thousands for drugs like oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine and codeine, from 2006 to 2017. She was never licensed by the state pharmacy board as required by law, the authorities said.

“Consumers depend on pharmacies to make sure that the person behind the counter preparing and giving out medical prescription drugs is trained, competent and licensed to do so,” Tiyen Lin, a deputy district attorney in the consumer protection unit at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement on Monday. “Their lives may depend on it.”

The authorities discovered that Ms. Le did not have a license during a state pharmacy board audit in 2017. Ms. Le falsely impersonated Walgreens pharmacists and used a license of someone who had the same first name, the authorities have said.

Mr. Lin said he had seen no evidence that Ms. Le improperly distributed opioids or other drugs. The lawsuit was filed and the case was settled on Monday.

In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesman for Walgreens said Ms. Le had not been employed by the company since October 2017. As part of Monday’s settlement, Walgreens also agreed to institute a license-verification program and conduct annual audits, among other new oversight measures.

“Pharmacy quality and safety are top priorities, and upon learning of this issue, we undertook a reverification of the licenses of all our pharmacists nationwide,” the spokesman said.

News of the settlement came as the business practices of chain pharmacies, including Walgreens, have increasingly drawn public scrutiny.

Walgreens faces accusations that it helped fuel the opioid crisis by flooding the country with billions of pills. And last week, The New York Times reported that pharmacists at Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS said that understaffed and chaotic workplaces made it difficult to perform their jobs safely.

News of Ms. Le’s employment came to light in January 2019, when The San Jose Mercury News reported that the California State Board of Pharmacy was investigating her duties at Walgreens stores in Fremont, Milpitas and San Jose, Calif. The board could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

In July, the California attorney general charged Ms. Le with false personation; identity theft; and obtaining money, labor or property by false pretenses — all felonies. State prosecutors did not immediately answer questions about the case.

Ms. Le has pleaded not guilty and the case is pending, according to court records. Rabin Nabizadeh, a lawyer for Ms. Le, said she was not in custody.

“We ask that your readers don’t jump to conclusions and let the process play out in a fair and equitable way,” Mr. Nabizadeh said.

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