Cheating, protests and outrage have upended the otherwise buttoned-up world of pharmacy in California.
California officials have invalidated more than 1,000 pharmacists’ test scores because of cheating on the exam, a move that has caused an uproar among pharmacists who say they have lost wages and job opportunities as a result of what they see as the board’s unfair decision.
Layla Mina, 28, of Anaheim said she lost a job offer to be a pharmacist at CVS because she could not become licensed without her exam scores. The drugstore chain held her offer for months hoping she would soon receive her scores and officially be able to practice, but finally rescinded it last week.
Mina now works at an H&M clothing store in a local mall, earning a fraction of what she would have made as a pharmacist. She is scrambling for ways to make her student loan payments, which begin Nov. 1.
“That CVS is close to my house, and every time I go in and get gum or whatnot, it makes me sad — that could’ve been me,” Mina said. “It’s not really fair to any of us.”
On Wednesday, the California State Board of Pharmacy said it had determined that more than 100 exam questions from the state licensing exam had been leaked online in what it called “widespread exposure of the exam questions.” Anyone who had taken the exam since July will have to retake it — a decision that affects approximately 1,400 people, said board spokesman Bob Davila.
“We are fully aware of how destructive it’s been for them, but we’re a consumer protection agency,” Davila said. “We want to make sure that anyone who does get a license in California is in fact competent to take care of California patients.”
Angered by the decision, pharmacists are contacting their legislators, threatening lawsuits, signing petitions and planning protests hoping the board will reverse its decision and release the exam scores. The scandal has mobilized what is otherwise typically a staid profession, said Jon Roth, head of the California Pharmacy Assn.
“[Pharmacists] are buttoned up. They’re very cautious, they’re very conservative in their approach to life and their profession, and they take it very seriously,” said Roth, adding that pharmacists seem particularly unlikely to have engaged in widespread cheating. “I don’t see this mass underground of cheating pharmacy students on the state exam.”
In September, the state pharmacy board became aware of a possible widespread cheating problem on the California Practice Standards and Jurisprudence Examination, Davila said. While investigating, the board decided to withhold test results for people who recently had taken the exam.
The state exams tests pharmacists’ familiarity with California laws and approximately 3,900 people took it last year. To become licensed in the state, pharmacists must pass the exam along with a national exam that focuses on clinical skills.
The delays started to rankle pharmacists who had expected to get their exam scores back within a month or so. After finishing four years of pharmacy school — typically completed after a bachelor’s degree — many were eager to start their new jobs in the fall, they said.
Steve Nassar, 29, was thrilled about the job he had lined up with a major healthcare provider. He didn’t think he’d be able to snag a job with benefits so quickly after graduation.
His took his state exam in July and should have been licensed in September, when he could have begun the position. But when that didn’t happen, he lost the opportunity.
“They had to open it up to other pharmacists to apply for because they needed to fill the spot,” said Nassar, who lives in Los Angeles. “If I had been licensed in September, I would be working in that position right now.”
This week, board officials announced that all pending scores will be invalidated and that people can retake the test on Nov. 16 or Nov. 17. The board will waive the $30 exam fee and will expedite the results, according to the statement.
“The board sincerely regrets that the actions of some are negatively impacting the lives of many,” reads the statement. “The board must, however, address the impact of the subversion on the examination’s validity.”
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said he has contacted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office about the board’s decision and is considering calling for an audit of the agency.
“They’re throwing thousands of people under the bus who played by the rules — they didn’t cheat and yet they’re being treated as if they did,” Patterson said in an interview.” “There’s got to be a better process than just making all these individuals retest.”
Davila said the board will continue to consider the issue and has a meeting coming up in November.
Meanwhile, 4,200 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for the board to release the scores. Mina, who lost the job at CVS, is planning a peaceful protest on Saturday at an event where the head of the pharmacy board will speak.
Mina said that even if people retake the exam in November, they still likely won’t be licensed until next year. They will likely have the same career trajectories as people who will graduate from pharmacy school in May 2020.
“What about the time lost? What about the opportunities lost?” she said.
When Duy Pham, 30, took his licensing exam in July, he thought he would be ready to start his job as a Walgreens pharmacist in September. But then his exam scores got delayed, and delayed again.
Pham’s job offer from Walgreens is pending, but he is supposed to give the company an update Friday, he said. He believes that when he tells them that he must retake the exam, they will likely rescind his offer.
Without work, Pham had already moved back in with his parents in Huntington Beach. On Thursday, he had a job interview to be a cashier at Nordstrom.
“I just applied for it to get some money to survive,” Pham said.