British Columbia

Pharmacy uses kickbacks and threat of eviction to keep methadone clients

A CBC News investigation into pharmacists that paid kickbacks to drug addicts discovered one outlet with a troubled past used a different tactic to get and keep methadone users coming to the pharmacy.

A CBC News investigation into pharmacies that paid kickbacks to drug addicts discovered one outlet with a troubled past used a different tactic to get and keep methadone users coming to the pharmacy.

Gastown Pharmacy in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has required certain customers to fill their methadone prescriptions exclusively with them, or lose their homes.

The pharmacy had changed its name to Peoples Pharmacy for a short period of time when it became a member of Peoples Drug Mart, a chain of drug stores across B.C. and in part of Alberta. It reverted its name to Gastown Pharmacy on June 1.

George Wolsey, a pharmacist at Gastown Pharmacy, also runs the nearby Wonder Hotel. Wolsey made it a condition in his agreement with the tenants that they must be on B.C.'s taxpayer-funded methadone program and must get all the prescriptions filled at Gastown Pharmacy.

"Everybody in the building has the same rules and regulations," said Teresa Baillie, one of Wolsey's tenants.

The British Columbia government pays pharmacists $16.30 for every daily dose of methadone they dispense. If a pharmacy can get an addict to fill all of their prescriptions at its outlet, it receives approximately $6,000 a year in dispensing fees, just for that customer.

One hundred loyal methadone customers would bring the business more than half a million dollars annually — and it's all taxpayer money.

Documents obtained by CBC show a handful of Wonder Hotel residents have been evicted for not complying with the pharmacy rule. Baillie said she was shocked when she switched pharmacies back in July and Wolsey promptly evicted her without any notice.

Slept in the alley

"I changed methadone clinics, and I came back one day after my dispense, and he said I no longer lived in his building," said Baillie.

"I think he's making a lot of money that he shouldn't be off of misery," said Baillie. "I need a home. I need somewhere to go where its safe, and he put me out in the alley."

Baillie said Wolsey told her she would not be allowed back on the premises, despite all her belongings still being inside the hotel. She said she spent the next several nights sleeping in the alley, until the Downtown Eastside Residents Association took her case to B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Board.

The board ruled Wolsey had no right to evict Baillie because she stopped going to the pharmacy where he worked. It ordered him to allow her back in to her suite. By then, Baillie said, she had been sleeping outside for a month.

Wolsey has a record of run-ins with the B.C. government. In 2004, he was charged with defrauding BC PharmaCare, after being accused of overcharging for dispensing methadone. His business partner, David Rands, was convicted, but Wolsey was acquitted.

The province did manage to get some of its money back from their business. The government failed in court, however, in its attempts to take away the pharmacy's licence.

$10 a week cash kickback

CBC News discovered Gastown Pharmacy also gives cash kickbacks to addicts who fill their methadone prescriptions there every day, a practice that B.C.'s Ministry of Health has said is a potential violation of the contract between the pharmacy and the government.

Several of the pharmacy's customers said they get $10 a week, and the cash is handed out in the alley across the street. A CBC hidden camera in the alley recorded several addicts as they slipped behind a doorway on Friday morning and came out, each with a white envelope containing $10 cash.

In that neighborhood, $10 is enough to pay for a rock of crack cocaine. Drug dealers could be seen hanging around the same alley while the cash was being distributed.

One customer who came out with his money said, "It's just for people from the clinic — from People's. You have to be on the methadone program."

Incentives against the rules, ministry says

Bernadette Murphy, a spokeswoman with B.C.'s Ministry of Health, wrote in an e-mail, "The Methadone Addendum agreement between government and pharmacies does not allow pharmacies to offer any incentives to patients in order to dispense methadone."

She added, "If an investigation shows that a pharmacy is found to be in violation of the methadone addendum, the Ministry will look to terminate the agreement with the pharmacy."

CBC News went into Gastown Pharmacy to ask George Wolsey for an interview, but was ordered to leave the premises.


Kathy Tomlinson

Host & Reporter

Kathy Tomlinson worked as an investigative reporter at CBC for more than a decade.