Thursday, December 14, 2017

Perspective: I got the wrong drug. And $2,500.

I hadn't eaten a big or particularly spicy dinner, so I was surprised to be awakened at midnight by a severe burning in my sternum. I'd dutifully taken — so I thought — Omeprazole, an anti-heartburn drug prescribed for me two years ago for a hiatal hernia. As night wore on, the glass of milk didn't help and the burning got worse. I began to think "ulcer" or "heart attack." At 3:30 a.m., I drove to an all-night drugstore and left with a bottle of generic pink antacid, easing the pain a little. Finally I fell asleep.

After taking another "Omeprazole" to no avail the next day, it occurred to me to look at the container. I saw a female first name, someone else's last name and the name of a drug I'd never heard of: Diflucan.

Google revealed this to be a cure for vaginal yeast infections, with possible side effects of upset stomach. I fished the bag it had come in out of the garbage; my name and "Omeprazole" was printed on its label. The bag was right; the bottle was wrong.

I hadn't looked closely. I've never looked closely because I've never thought I had to. I've never checked the gas pump, either, to make sure it wasn't dispensing orange juice. One trusts certain institutions.

The first thing I did was call my sister-in-law, a doctor, asking her if I would keel over from the Diflucan. "No," she said. "You just won't get a yeast infection." Next I called the pharmacy. The person who answered the phone listened and said: "Okay. Just bring it back, and we'll exchange it."

"That's a pretty big mistake, boss," I said.

"Just bring it back, and we'll exchange it." Click.

We swapped medications without a word between patient and pharmacist other than "Sign here" and "Next!" I opened the bottle at the water cooler, popped a pill and within 20 minutes, abdominal freedom.

I'm not a litigious person, but I was a little riled up, not just because of the physical pain I'd had to endure because of the pharmacy's bungling, but because no one seemed particularly concerned.

It seemed to me that if the pharmacy wasn't interested in apologizing or acknowledging a mistake, some kind of dollar figure was appropriate.

And yet I hesitated. For years I've loathed the American culture of litigiousness, which has only gotten worse since the infamous Liebeck vs. McDonald's lawsuit of 1994, in which a jury awarded the plaintiff $2.86 million for the pain and suffering she endured after spilling hot coffee on herself.

It's common knowledge, too, that squeezing insurance money out of fake or exaggerated injuries is a racket. Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Midnight Cowboy, is famous for shouting "I'm walkin' here!" when a cab almost hits him; less well-known is what he says to Joe Buck as the two continue: "Actually, that ain't a bad way to pick up insurance."

But I also discovered this wasn't some odd one-off mix-up. Medication mistakes make up a significant portion of the millions of medical errors made each year in the United States. While estimates vary, medication errors injure more than a million patients each year and kill roughly 100,000 of them. These errors can happen during ordering, preparation and dispensing, or just by way of an administrative mistake, in hospitals, doctors' offices or in pharmacies, like mine did. At least I wasn't alone.

I finally called my 93-year-old mom, dispenser of wisdom, telling her I felt like a heel for seeking money when I didn't suffer serious harm from taking the Diflucan.

"That's outrageous," she said. "Go after them."

I didn't know where to start, so I talked to a lawyer friend. "Don't even bother with the store," she told me. "Send a letter to the legal department of the pharmacy and tell them what happened. They'll write you a check. They do it all the time."

Trying to locate the correct person at this nationwide chain store to send my letter of grievance took a lot of time in research, unreturned calls and emails to the abyss. Eventually, though, I found the right fellow and mailed him photos of the bag and bottle along with a letter outlining the situation. I declared that my night of pain and suffering was worth $5,000, the number suggested by my lawyer friend.

A month went by with no response. On day 31, I called the guy up and left him a voice message. To my surprise, he called right back, said he'd gotten my letter, but that $5,000 was too much money. He offered half. I told him I'd call him back.

"Take the $2,500," my lawyer friend told me. "They really don't have to give you anything unless you sue them, and they know most people won't do that unless someone dies or is seriously injured. Most companies count on people cooling off, then throwing up their hands and forgetting about it. If you wait too long, too, they'll probably withdraw the offer."

I called the pharmacy lawyer back and told him I'd take his 50 percent. The call, I should add, was polite on both sides, no growling, neither of us bringing much energy to the negotiations.

My lawyer friend was right — they do this all day long, 40 hours a week. It was like calling the bank. But at the end of the conversation, the lawyer surprised me with: "I'm sorry that happened to you."

I accepted his apology and asked him if I'd be forever unwelcome in that drugstore and whether I should stay away. No worries there. "Actually, the pharmacy will never know a mistake was made," he said. "The money comes from the main office."

My idea had been to make the pharmacy pay for its mistake with a financial tap on the nose, so the pharmacists might be a little more careful in the future.

But it was me who got the wake-up call, after realizing that no one involved, except perhaps the polite man in the main office, seemed to care whether I got the right medication, was sick or well, or whether this systemic problem would ever be cured.

Josh Max is a writer and musician.

© 2017 New York Times


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