A story about community pharmacists and their growing role in the nation’s health care system appeared on the front page of a Saturday edition of The New York Times earlier this month.

community pharmacists, health care, health care system, New York Times, Jeffrey Woldt, Barney's Pharmacy, independent drug store, drug store, medication therapy management, MTM, immunizations, health monitoring, retail pharmacy, National Association of Chain Drug Stores, NACDS, Steve Anderson, Affordable Care Act, Kay Hagan, health and wellness, pharmacy benefits management, prescription, Walgreens, CVS, Kroger, Medicine Shoppe, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

Higher profile adds to growing clout of Rx

August 30th, 2010

A story about community pharmacists and their growing role in the nation’s health care system appeared on the front page of a Saturday edition of The New York Times earlier this month.

Taking the work of Barney’s Pharmacy, an independent drug store in Augusta, Ga., as its focal point, the article discussed the evolution of the profession from one centered on filling prescriptions to a multifaceted occupation that increasingly involves such responsibilities as medication therapy management (MTM), health monitoring and immunizations.

For those involved in retail pharmacy, the Times report was old news. The profession’s transformation from a product to a service orientation has been in the works for years, even if it is only now attaining critical mass.

The story, nevertheless, had great significance for the industry. The prominent treatment given to pharmacy in what is widely viewed as the newspaper of record in the United States served to ratify the emergence of the profession at a time when the Affordable Care Act holds the promise of helping pave the way for pharmacies to strengthen and expand their position as community health care centers, and demonstrated the effectiveness of industry advocates in raising the profile of the profession in the eyes of members of the consumer press and policy makers.

Customers at Barney’s recognize the potential that pharmacies have to support their health and wellness. After recounting how input from a Barney’s pharmacist and classes given by the retailer helped her lower her glucose and cholesterol levels and her blood pressure, one woman was quoted as saying, [the store] “is my home away from home.”

Similar scenarios are being played out at thousands of community pharmacies across the country. While a reader of the Times’ story might have been left with the impression that the phenomenon is occurring primarily in the independent drug store sector, chains (several of which, including Walgreens, Medicine Shoppe and Kroger, were mentioned in the piece) are in the vanguard of the movement.

The scale and diverse resources of companies like Walgreens and CVS Caremark — whose operations encompass everything from prescription counters and in-store clinics to broad front-end assortments and pharmacy benefits management divisions — equip them to make the greatest impact on patients’ well-being.

Although nowhere near the size of the biggest pharmacy operators, Kerr Drug is doing its part to influence the future of the profession. Its work has garnered widespread attention from state and federal officials, as well as others in the industry.

Earlier this month, Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) visited a Kerr store in Raleigh to observe an MTM session and rally support for a bill, which she cosponsored, that would substantially expand Medicare beneficiaries’ access to counseling services. The senator cited evidence that intervention by pharmacists can improve patient outcomes and substantially reduce health care expenditures.

Community pharmacy’s increasing clout, as evidenced by Hagan’s comments and the high-profile Times piece, is the culmination of years of hard work by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and other industry groups.

During the three-year tenure of Steve Anderson as NACDS president and chief executive officer, the association and its allies have greatly enhanced pharmacy’s standing and, as a result, achieved much success in the legal, legislative and regulatory arenas. An industry that too often in the past was content to be reactive is now fully engaged in shaping its destiny.

Despite the substantial progress it has made, retail pharmacy must remain alert. Even as some government officials aim to help the profession attain a bigger role in health care, others are taking steps that might serve to undermine its financial viability. One need look no further for evidence of that than the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ current plans to scrutinize the industry’s pricing structure.

Constant vigilance is required if pharmacy operators are to rise to the occasion and take full advantage of the opportunities that the reform of the health care system are expected to open up.