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Santa Clarita Valley group concerned that illicit drug users are targeting trash at senior centers

June 10, 2010 | 11:58 am

Reports that illicit drug users may be targeting the trash at senior living facilities in search of discarded prescription-drug vials have sparked concern among a group of Santa Clarita Valley senior citizens, doctors and pharmacists.

“We don’t know to what degree it is happening, but it’s probably happening a great deal,” said Gene Dorio, a Santa Clarita physician whose patients are primarily senior citizens. “It’s a potential loophole … a potential way to go under the radar and get illicit medication.”

Dorio said the issue was brought to his attention by a patient who recently came across two men rummaging through the trash outside her home in the Valley Oaks Village Senior Apartments, an upscale retirement community. The men fled when they noticed the woman, who did not want to be identified because she feared retaliation.

The next day, the woman told Dorio that she found the area near the recycling cans littered with empty prescription-medication vials, including one of her bottles for Vicodin.

Even more disturbing, Dorio said, was that he discovered that he was able to refill his patient’s Vicodin prescription by pretending to be her grandson and without providing the pharmacist with any identification.

On Thursday, the Santa Clarita Valley Medical Society announced that it is spearheading a Community Task Force group in response to the problem.

The task force includes local doctors, pharmacists and senior-center leaders as well as other community groups and leaders.

They plan to educate the public about proper disposal of controlled substances; urge doctors not to provide automatic refills; and encourage pharmacists to request identification from customers refilling prescriptions. Local pharmacists confirmed that personal identification is not legally required when picking up refill prescriptions.

Lt. Brenda Cambra, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, said in an e-mail that the department had not received any reports of empty prescription bottles being stolen. But she said it could just be that the issue is not being reported.

“This is a significant problem if the items are being used to procure more medication for someone who has no medical need,” Cambra said.

Levi Locke, owner of Levi’s Pharmacy in Canyon Country, said that once or twice a year someone tries to get  a refill for a prescription that is not in that person's name. Although the people occasionally succeed, Locke said he typically manages to “shut them down.”

“I know most of my customers by name, so it’s not going to happen here,” said Locke, whose independent pharmacy opened in 1997. “It would be easier to go to a busier place, where they don’t know the people, and slip through the cracks.”

Pharmacists who are part of the new task force said the group was hoping to dissuade local doctors from putting numerous refill labels on prescription bottles. Meanwhile, physicians are suggesting that pharmacists request that people collecting refills present identification, a copy of which should be kept on file.

Task force members are also launching an awareness campaign that would focus on reminding senior citizens to remove identifying information labels from discarded pill vials and dispose of unused medication at designated locations.

Kass suggested that managers of senior living facilities arrange for monthly collection of empty medication vials and set up secure drop-off locations.

Lt. Cambra said residents also can anonymously dispose of medication or narcotics in three white storage containers that were placed at the entrance of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station earlier this year. Lancaster and Palmdale installed similar “narcotic mailboxes” last year, as part of a “Safe Drug Drop-off” program that was launched by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department last September.

-- Ann M. Simmons

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