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Pharmacies are changing hours as industry adjusts

Chain pharmacies have been shuttering stores while announcing reductions in services offered and scaling back hours of operation.

Changes announced by major retailers CVS and Walmart have been attributed to staffing shortages, including the scarcity of licensed pharmacists to manage local outlets.

Dr. Lauren Bode is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. She says the issue is not a shortage of pharmacists.

“Blaming the reductions in inability to adequately staff locations, on an overall lack of pharmacists, is just not accurate. And it's somewhat misleading given the current state of affairs,” said Bode.

Bode contends that short staffing has led to unfavorable working conditions and in some cases burnout for pharmacy staff professionals, who are leaving the field.

“If you look at the national statistics, for, like pharmacy workforce, there's no indication that there actually is a shortage of pharmacists," Bode said. "What you may be seeing is a shortage of pharmacists who are looking to continue on, when working conditions are not favorable to providing the kind of care that they want to provide the patients in those pharmacies. And so they may be seeking other employment opportunities, whether that's in a different community pharmacy, or a different segment of the pharmacy profession altogether.”

New York State Assemblymember John McDonald represents the 108th district. The Democrat is also a licensed pharmacist and owner of Marra's pharmacy, an independent drugstore in Cohoes.

“What you're seeing with reduction of hours, particularly in regards to the chain community pharmacies, it's a reflection of maybe the workforce challenges, but also reflection of the inadequate reimbursement that pharmacies have struggled with for a long period of time," McDonald said. "I always portray a community pharmacy as independent of chain pharmacies, as the victim between the battle between the pharmaceutical industry and the prescription benefit manager industry or PBM, who manages the drug benefit. And unfortunately, that industry is shrouded in trance in a lack of transparency, to be honest with you, where everyone's concerned about the price of medications, but there's significant behind the curtain trade-offs going on that need to be fully exposed. Because it's mostly been public dollars.”

There are other reasons chain pharmacies invoke in defense of cutbacks. In December CNBC quoted a Walmart official who told the network "rising in-store theft that’s often going unchecked by local law enforcement could force Walmart to raise prices or even close some stores."

McDonald says reductions take their toll on pharmacies and staff.

“It's quite a very difficult working condition where there is a lot of pressure for high volume output, which is really not something that is really recommended in healthcare in general," said McDonald. "And we know the struggles we've seen in other areas, such as nursing, and physicians, with many people leaving the industry. In regards to CVS particularly, CVS made a conscious decision a year ago saying they're going to shutter a third of their stores throughout the country.”

CVS recently closed its Central Avenue store in Albany, leaving the low-income neighborhood with one community pharmacy and no "convenience" or "variety" store.

The Associated Press reports that CVS Health continues to acquire primary care services. CVS Health says it will spend about $10.6 billion to buy Oak Street Health, which runs clinics that specialize in treating Medicare Advantage patients. Last year CVS paid $8 billion to take over health care provider Signify Health. The retailer chalked up $322.5 billion in revenue for 2022.

CVS responded to a request for comment via email, saying in part "...we’ll be changing our pharmacy hours of operation in about two-thirds of our stores by late March. These changes are part of the regular course of business and are being made to better support our pharmacy teams while optimizing productivity... Our hours of operation changes are not due to staffing concerns."

Walmart acknowledged receiving a request for comment for this story, but did not offer one.

Bode says ACPHS is focused on preparing students for a wide range of positions, in various segments of the pharmacy profession. In 2021 the college graduated 238 students with pharmacist degrees. About 60% of graduates end up working in retail pharmacies.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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