On the heels of a violent and sometimes deadly year at Long Island pharmacies, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Monday a series of initiatives meant to increase safety and deter robberies at area pharmacies.
Bellone, joined by police officials, the head of security for a major pharmaceutical company and the president of the Long Island Pharmacists Society, said the initiatives were the first step in combating a "prescription drug epidemic."
The three-pronged approach consists of training police and pharmacy employees, increasing the Crime Stoppers reward (from $1,500 to $5,000) for information leading to the arrest of those involved in pharmacy robberies and raising community awareness of Operation Medicine Cabinet, a program that allows residents to dispose of potentially unsafe medications at any of the county's seven police precincts.
"These drugs need to be taken seriously and they are being taken seriously here in Suffolk County," Bellone said during the press conference at Suffolk County Police headquarters in Yaphank, just a few miles from where four people were during a pharmacy robbery in Medford last summer.
Bellone, who said he was "stunned" when he learned he needed to be buzzed into a pharmacy to pick up a prescription for his mother during his campaign for county executive, said the police department's attention for a long time had been on traditional drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc...), but that was now changing.
"We now understand today that the gateway to addiction is the medicine cabinet," said Bellone, who later added that the county doesn't currently have enough resources to treat the large number of people addicted to prescription drugs.
The focus Monday, however, was on how to keep pharmacies safe and secure. The county is teaming with Purdue Pharma L.P.'s Law Enforcement Liason and Education Unit (LELE) to educate police and pharmacy workers.
The LELE has already trained 180,000 law enforcement officers across the country and it also teaches pharmacists on how to recognize fraudulent prescriptions, said Mark Geraci, vice-president and chief security officer with Purdue Pharma, the company which makes the painkiller OxyContin (Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading the public about the drug's risk of addiction and agreed to pay $600 million).
For those on the front lines of the recent wave of pharmacy robberies--the pharmacy workers behind the counter--any steps toward making the job safer is welcome news, said Joanne Hoffman Beechko, president of the Long Island Pharmacists Society.
"It is quite evident that we are in an environment now in which any day could be a dangerous one, said Hoffman Beechko, who owns Rx Express, which recently re-located from East Northport to Dix Hills.
Hoffman Beechko added, however, that many pharmacies have been adding new security measures for years.
"It is anxiety-producing to work, but you can't work in that environment on a daily basis," she said. "If I had to worry every day, I would stop working."