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California

Outrage among new pharmacists after cheating scandal upends licensing exam results

A cheating scandal led California officials to invalidate the results of a licensing test taken by hundreds of new pharmacists.
Steve Nassar cannot work as a fully licensed pharmacist because his exam score was invalidated. Nassar, who lives in Los Angeles, is now trying to negotiate with his loan servicer to delay the beginning of his payments. He has more than $277,000 in student debt to pay down.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

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 a state exam, a move that has caused an uproar among pharmacists who say they have lost wages and job opportunities as a result.

Layla Mina, 28, of Anaheim said her job offer to be a pharmacist at CVS was rescinded because she could not become licensed without her exam scores.

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.

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“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 questions from the state licensing exam had been leaked online. Anyone who had taken the exam since July will have to retake it — a decision that affects approximately 1,400 people, board spokesman Bob Davila said.

“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 Pharmacists Assn.

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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,” Roth said, adding that pharmacists seem particularly unlikely to have masterminded a cheating plot. “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 exam, which about 3,900 people took last year, tests pharmacists’ familiarity with California laws. To become licensed in the state, pharmacists must pass the exam along with a national exam that focuses on clinical skills.

The delays rankled 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.

Steven Nassar, 29, was thrilled about the position he had lined up with a major healthcare provider, especially because it came with benefits. But he lost the opportunity when the results from his July exam did not come through by September.

Nassar, who lives in Los Angeles, is now trying to negotiate with his loan servicer to delay the beginning of his payments. He has more than $277,000 in student debt to pay down.

“It’s hard to come by these kind of positions, and it’s frustrating that we have go through this,” he said. “And then with our loans kicking in in November for most of us, it’s daunting.”

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This week, board officials announced that all pending scores will be invalidated and that people can retake the test Nov. 16 or Nov. 17. The board will waive the $30 exam fee and expedite the results, according to the statement.

“The board sincerely regrets that the actions of some are negatively impacting the lives of many,” the statement said. “The board must, however, address the impact of the subversion on the examination’s validity.”

Board officials said there had been “numerous acts that resulted in widespread exposure of the exam questions” but would not say how many people were implicated in the cheating scandal and did not provide any further details.

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 agency will continue to consider the issue. The board has a meeting scheduled for early November.

Meanwhile, 4,200 people by Thursday afternoon had signed a Change.org petition calling for the board to release the scores. Mina, who lost the job offer at CVS, is planning a protest Saturday at an event where the head of the pharmacy board will speak.

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Mina said that even if people retake the exam in November, they still aren’t likely to be licensed until next year. They may end up with 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.

Many recent pharmacy school grads added that they were upset at the limited availability of days to retake the test. Board officials said that people who cannot make the two designated days must reapply to take the test, a process that costs $200 and requires fingerprinting.

Christophe La, who lives in Palm Springs, logged onto the board website just hours after the openings were posted, but the closest exam site he could find was in Fresno. Now most of the openings available are out of state, he said.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” said La, 28.

Students typically study for the exam after graduation, all day for two months. Just one month to prepare is not enough, La said, especially given that many people must juggle studying and work as they try to stay afloat.

And for many, retaking the exam won’t be a silver bullet.

Walgreens has been holding onto a job offer for Duy Pham for months. Pham, 30, took his licensing exam in July and expected to start in his position in September.

Pham is supposed to give the company an update Friday. He believes that when he tells them that he must retake the exam, they will 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.


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