Ex-pharmacist accuses CVS of risking patient safety

Joe Zorek will proudly tell you he's been in the pharmacy business for 43 years. Do the math and you'll realize the 59-year-old started at the tender age of 16.

“I used to stock shelves and clean the awnings at a store in Steelton,” Zorek remembers fondly. “Steelton had a lot of pigeons in those days.”

From stock boy, to pharmacy tech, to pharmacy school, to pharmacist-in-charge, Zorek rose through the ranks of a profession he loves. But his mood changes when discussing the state of the industry today.

He was until recently the pharmacist-in-charge at the Paxton Square CVS in suburban Harrisburg, one of the busiest in the region. He says about a year ago his relationship with management soured when supervisors ordered him to cut staff hours and “pick up the pace.”

“It was like a harassing call every day saying, 'we got another patient complaining about long lines,' ” Zorek said. “I said, 'I understand that.' I said, 'we don't have the bodies to get them out fast enough.' “

Zorek says the stress was palpable among his staff. And, he says, mistakes were made. He says he protested to his bosses.

“I kept saying 'patient safety. We gotta take care of the patients. We're making errors,' ” he said.

That's when Zorek says things started to change. He claims his bosses tried to demote him. He refused. Last July, he says the stress and his multiple sclerosis forced him to take medical leave.

He believes the attempted demotion was CVS retaliating against him for raising patient safety concerns, so he filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Dauphin County court.

CVS lawyers, in response documents filed in Dauphin County, deny Zorek's claims and say private companies are not subject to the whistleblower act. Zorek's attorney, Lynne Bernabei, disagrees.

“If you get Medicare funds, as CVS clearly does, you can be subject to the whistleblower act,” she said.

Zorek, who has been on medical leave since last July but remained the pharmacist-in-charge until recently, says former staffers tell him that prescription mistakes continue and once they were told to cover it up.

“They were to keep it hush-hush, that unless the patient brought it to the attention of the pharmacy, it didn't happen,” he said.

CVS denies wrongdoing. CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis issued a statement that said the health and safety of customers is the chain's “number one priority.”

“We have comprehensive policies and procedures in place to ensure prescription safety,” DeAngelis said in the statement. “We deny the allegations in Mr. Zorek's suit and we intend to defend this case vigorously.”

Brenda Henninger, a CVS customer, says an incorrect prescription was given to her.

“I looked at the pill and it didn't look right,” Henninger said.

She is a longtime friend and patient of Zorek. Even though the pharmacist was on medical leave, Brenda called him at home to discuss the mistake.

“They gave me potassium chloride which is not the same pill at potassium citrate,” she said. “He (Zorek) was like, 'oh, don't take it, don't take it.' “

Zorek insists it's not an isolated incident.

“For them to say they're not making mistakes, that is a bold-faced lie on their part,” he said.

Zorek is preparing for his day in court and he's expecting CVS to say he just couldn't handle the busiest store in the area.

“Fine. Go for it. Do it. At the same time, I'm gonna yell at the top of my lungs, 'you gotta start taking care of these people before we really hurt somebody badly,' ” he said.

Zorek says he has spoken with investigators from the state attorney general's office and the Department of State, which licenses pharmacies. Spokesmen from both agencies, as is their custom, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

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