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'Everybody Is Just Scrambling': Nationwide Cyber Attack Delays Bay Area Pharmacy Orders

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A person works counting pills in the pharmacy inside of a Safeway in Oakland on Feb. 26, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Updated 8 p.m. Monday

People across the Bay Area are clamoring to fill essential medications after a cyber attack last Wednesday disrupted data transmission lines between health care providers, insurance companies and pharmacies.

East Bay resident Alison Hightower is among them.

For two days, she has been trying to refill a medication her husband takes for nerve damage. When she tried to pick it up, the pharmacist at her local Safeway on College Avenue in Oakland said they had been unable to fill most prescriptions since the hack against UnitedHealth Group Inc. last week.

“I stopped at the pharmacy, and they said they are totally shut down and can’t do anything,” Hightower told KQED. “This will have a huge snowballing effect. My husband is scrambling to get his medication refilled.”

Since the cyber attack, pharmacies across the country — including those at Safeway, Walgreens and CVS — have been unable to fill some prescription orders because the computer system that forwards prescriptions from doctors and processes insurance was disconnected after the hack at UnitedHealth’s technology unit, called Change Healthcare.

A spokesperson for Safeway confirmed that people filling online prescriptions may experience a delay due to the nationwide outage with Optum, a third-party healthcare technology vendor owned by UnitedHealth. Other insurance providers including Medicare were also affected.

UnitedHealth is Alameda County’s largest health insurer. It’s not clear when the service will be restored. As of noon on Monday Optum reported that the disruption is expected to continue through at least the end of the day.

A Safeway store in Oakland on Feb. 26, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“Change Healthcare is experiencing a cybersecurity issue, and our experts are working to address the matter,” the company said in a statement on its website. “Once we became aware of the outside threat, in the interest of protecting our partners and patients, we took immediate action to disconnect our systems to prevent further impact.”

Hindering access to medication can be life-threatening.

“Our pharmacy operations and the vast majority of prescriptions are not being impacted by this third-party issue,” a spokesperson for Walgreens said in an email. “For the small percentage that may be affected, we have procedures in place so that we can continue to process and fill these prescriptions with minimal delay or interruption.”

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“Safeway would like to reassure customers and the public that our pharmacy locations are open for business and serving customers,” a spokesperson for Safeway said in an email. “We are working quickly to address this matter and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

CVS, which also relies on UnitedHealth technology, said earlier in a prepared statement that the company is still filling prescriptions, but “in certain cases, we are not able to process insurance claims, which our business continuity plan is addressing to ensure patients continue to have access to their prescriptions.” KQED has reached out to CVS for further comment but as of Monday evening has not received a response.

The issue is impacting different medications and particularly controlled substances like pain medications and ADHD medication, which are more heavily regulated by the federal government, Ruzly Mantara, a pharmacist in San Francisco, told KQED on Monday.

Pharmacists like Mantara need help to convey the news and to provide patients with their medications.

“This has never happened before. We are taking this one step at a time,” Mantara told KQED. “The best thing we can do is ask for their patience at this time.”

As of Sunday afternoon, Mantara said that the computer system could process most insurance plans again but that the pharmacy was still not able to receive prescriptions from doctors.

So far, options remain limited for customers who can’t pay out of pocket or don’t have a written prescription.

“We are able to get faxes and phone calls, but there are some prescriptions that can’t be faxed or called in, so that’s an issue,” Mantara said. “It creates a big problem.”

Hightower’s husband’s medication is expensive and tightly regulated, she said, so paying out of pocket or sending over a written prescription are both unfeasible. She and her husband are continuing to assess their options.

“His drug is under more severe regulation, so they don’t keep it in stock, and they have to special order it,” Hightower said. “Everybody is just scrambling.”

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