When Bryan McCutcheon opened Echo Pharmacy in Miller Place in 2002, his intent was to build a community pharmacy with a mom-and-pop feel.
That feel is long gone. In its place: fear.
“All of my employees have expressed concern for their safety,” McCutcheon said, adding that the pharmacy has been robbed numerous times, including once at hammer point, as Long Island finds itself at the epicenter of a prescription drug abuse epidemic.
McCutcheon was a panelist Tuesday morning at a press conference as part of “Long Island United: Saving Lives--Call to Action,” a day of meetings, exhibitions and group discussions held in Melville meant to urge action against drug abuse.
McCutcheon’s pharmacy opened with no bars or gates, but now it’s gated shut each night. A retired police officer comes to the store each night to make sure all of the employees get out safe.
“It’s a bad, bad problem,” said McCutcheon, referencing the people the pharmacy turns away each day who come in with phony prescriptions or who travel all the way from Brooklyn or Queens to attempt to get pills from Echo.
“We have kids who are 16, 17 years old that have a prescription for OxyContin for 360 tablets from a doctor,” McCutcheon said, touching on a theme of the speakers at the press conference of “dirty doctors” contributing to the epidemic. “I mean, who does that? And this is what we are faced with everyday.”
The deadly pull of oxycodone, a powerful opiate painkiller, is well-known to Laura Bustamante. It’s one of the drugs David Laffer and his wife Melinda Brady were on the hunt for when they pulled into the Haven Drugs parking lot in Medford on Father’s Day in 2011. Laffer killed four people in the pharmacy, including Bustamante’s father, Bryon Sheffield, and took off with thousands of pain pills.
“That word epidemic scares a lot of people and you should stay scared because it could happen to your family,” Bustamante said. “It happened to mine.”
Since the murders, Bustamante said some progress has been made to fight the problem on Long Island, including the creation of I-STOP, a real-time, online database for doctors and pharmacists to report and track the prescribing and the dispensing of certain controlled substances. The Suffolk County Police Department has also been training its officers and pharmacists on the island with regard to how to combat abuse and prevent robberies.
But more must be done, with more drug counselors and rehab centers needed on the island, Bustamante said at Tuesday's event, which was sponsored by North Shore-LIJ Health System.
“Some positive change has started, but we must pick up the pace,” she said, calling doctors who are needlessly prescribing massive amounts of addictive pills “drug dealers with a medical degree."
Just last week, under an indictment unsealed in federal court, a Long Island doctor was charged with causing the deaths of two men by giving them prescriptions for hundreds of pills of oxycodone.
While prescription drug abuse is certainly nothing new on Long Island, the Medford massacre and the shooting death of a federal agent in a friendly fire incident six months later in Seaford during a pharmacy robbery has moved the problem to the front of agenda for many local politicians.
During the press conference, Assemb. Joseph Saladino, R-Massapequa, announced he plans on introducing legislation that will require insurance companies in the state to cover in-patient treatment for drug addicts if a doctor recommends it.
There needs to be “state legislation with teeth” Saladino said to combat “one of the worst problems Long Island and our youth have ever faced.”
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said the goal of any new legislation, including I-STOP, is to “close loopholes and make the system for people who legitimately need medication and get treatment for those who are addicted.”
Rice, who has brought the hammer down recently on “dirty doctors” and pharmacists who knowingly fill fake prescriptions, said it will take a couple years for new policies and programs meant to combat the problem to be fully implemented.
“It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy and a case like that to shine a light on a problem that we know has existed for some time,” Rice said, speaking of the Medford massacre, “but let’s not squander the opportunity.”