David M. Granger


AUBURN -- With Jan. 1, 2000, less than six months away, fears mount about the potential effects of the so-called millennium bug, which could cause certain computers to read 2000 as 1900 and shut down.

The possible problems for such industries as banking, energy and air travel have been well publicized. But an Auburn University professor says the effects of the threat of such computer shutdowns on pharmacy are already being felt.

"There's a certain group of people out there expecting the worst," says Bill Felkey, an associate professor of pharmacy care systems in AU's School of Pharmacy. "They are worried that computer problems caused by the millennium bug might result in unavailability of medicines they need. And these concerns are causing ripples along the chain that includes the patient, physician, pharmacist and insurance provider."

Felkey, who has worked closely with computer vendors in his capacity at AU, says he personally expects few glitches in the industry after Jan. 1. But, he says, with patients' concerns causing some to change their prescription regimen, the pharmaceutical industry has been forced to address the issue.

"One of the main problems is that some patients are planning to guard against running out of their medicines -- which they may, in some cases, need to live -- by cutting back on their dosages now and stockpiling some of their them," Felkey said. "Lives could be endangered by this kind of approach. It's a very real problem that has had to be addressed."

Felkey said an increasing number of pharmacists are seeing patients seeking refills before they are due or requesting that their prescriptions be increased in number or volume.

"In many cases, these changes can't be made without the physician's involvement," Felkey said. "If a decision is made to allow the change, then it causes a bump in the demand on the manufacturer. Plus, it could result in an exceedance of the cap that certain insurance providers have on what they'll pay for, either over a year of coverage or in a single prescription. So everyone in the chain has had to make some modifications."

But Auburn Pharmacy Alumni Association president Becky Jones-Sorrell, who practices at Ritch's Pharmacy in Mountain Brook, says few of her patients are concerned about Y2K problems.

"We've had a couple to ask questions," said Jones-Sorrell. "We try to reassure them that the manufacturers normally keep a 60-day supply ahead of the market and they have insured us that they are ready for Y2K. We have had some -- like heart patients or kidney patients who absolutely have to have their prescription -- who indicated they would like extra medicine in case something happened, but not to the degree of having six months or a year's supply like I've heard about in the media."

Still, Felkey says legislation has been passed in some states to prevent insurance providers from prohibiting by policy extended drug benefits. In addition, a Task Force on Y2K and Pharmaceuticals was created as part of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion. Last month, the task force released a report which stressed steps the industry had taken to prevent against any Y2K glitches and its readiness for any problems that may be caused by the millennium bug.

"The pharmaceutical industry has emergency response plans in place and extensive past experience in using these plans in handling disruptions caused by severe weather, transportation, or other unforeseen circumstances," the report read. "Government and organizations within the supply system that manufacture, purchase, distribute and provide prescription and nonprescription medicines and medical supplies are continuing to work together to further enhance contingency planning for Y2K-specific issues."

And Felkey knows first-hand how much time the pharmaceutical-related computer firms have devoted to assuring Y2K compliance.

"As I have tried to work with the computer industry over the last two months, I have been unable to get enhancements on products because all of the attention is focused on Y2K," Felkey said. "It is critical to the mission of the pharmacist for us to be ready for this bug. Everybody in the entire system is sensitive to the fact that patients will want to have this extra drug on hand."

Felkey and the President's Council report both recommend that patients concerned about drug availability talk with their pharmacist and their physician.

"Both would have to be involved in allowing a change in the normal flow of medicine to the patient," Felkey said.

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CONTACT: Felkey, 334-844-8360; Jones-Sorrell, 205-871-1141