The chain has grown to almost 130 pharmacies in 23 states.
LINTHICUM, Md. — CARE Pharmacies is continuing to make its mark in the industry with new programs and initiatives to serve its growing membership that has seen its footprint rise to almost 130 pharmacies in 23 states.
The Maryland-based company has added to its track record of growth by watching its sales expand to almost $800 million, with the lion’s share of that coming from the pharmacy counter.
Mike Wysong, the cooperative’s chief executive officer, attributes part of the company’s long-term growth strategy to its ability to continually refine its operating structure. “We are constantly looking for new revenue opportunities and for ways to differentiate our services,” he says. “The new and emerging models of CARE will reward providers who are quick to adapt and not afraid to change.”
These are just some of the reasons why Chain Drug Review has chosen CARE Pharmacies as its Regional Chain of the Year.
The company was founded in 1960 when a group of like-minded community pharmacists decided to work collaboratively to leverage their collective size and clinical expertise. The group called themselves Circle Drug, and it would take nearly four decades for the CARE Pharmacies that we know today to emerge. “Circle Drug was certainly ahead of its time,” says Wafaa Berrady, the company’s vice president of finance. “Early on Circle Drug was primarily focused on finding a way to source pharmaceuticals more economically for its members. Ultimately, it ended up becoming a pharmaceutical distribution company, and it took some time to realize that what made the company truly special was its community-based owner operators. Circle Drug returned to its roots when it shuttered its distribution ambitions in favor of a new pharmacy group called CARE Drug Centers. This would be the genesis of CARE Pharmacies, and today CARE stores can be found on both coasts and the company has grown to nearly 130 pharmacy locations operating in 23 states including Washington, D.C.,” Berrady explains.
In 2010, CARE Pharmacies hired Mike Wysong as its CEO. Wysong had spent nearly two decades working in the medical surgical and drug distribution business for companies like Baxter, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. “At the time, I really didn’t appreciate how valuable the experience was in working with customers who were trying to organize their sourcing, access and reimbursement challenges,” Wysong points out. “The pharmaceutical space is so dynamic when you look at the payers, the distributors, the providers and the manufacturers. If you truly understand how all these entities interact and impact each other, it makes it much easier to understand and navigate,” Wysong adds. During his tenure, CARE Pharmacies has grown from 45 locations, mostly located in the Mid-Atlantic, to almost 130 pharmacies nationwide. Sales have also soared during that time from $156 million in 2010 to nearly $1 billion in 2021. This has culminated in CARE Pharmacies being named a Hot 100 retailer by the National Retail Federation eight out of the last nine years.
The company gives credit for its meteoric growth to its unique operating model, its unwavering commitment to its customers, its expertise in specialty pharmacy and the partnerships that it has formed within the industry. “Though we are structured as a cooperative, CARE is essentially operating as a regional drug chain of community, retail and specialty pharmacies,” says Mark Ey, the company’s vice president of operations and the person overseeing its clinical programs and vendor partnerships. “When I came to CARE we wanted to make sure our customers had access to the best resources, the most aggressive sourcing options and — to embrace what made them special — their independence as business owners and pharmacists,” Ey explains.
Ey and Wysong worked together before they joined forces at CARE. “When we both came to CARE, we wanted to take advantage of our collective experiences by marrying up the operational benefits and continuity of care that exists on the chain side with the clinical advantages of community-based care. That has turned out to be a very balanced approach and an effective pathway in meeting the diverse needs of our growing membership,” Ey points out.
Over time, CARE has seen a marked increase in the demand for its programs and services. “CARE’s extensive sourcing portfolio has been attractive to new pharmacies seeking refuge from declining reimbursement and increasing DIRs,” says Kim Smith, the company’s data analytics manager responsible for helping to right-size falling margins within the stores. “What it boils down to is making sure the stores have the cash flow they need to make the best decisions they can to expand patient access and drive better outcomes, she adds. “Our stores seem to be faring better than most, in these trying times,” she notes.
The company’s third-party contracting expert, Dolores Bobrosky, explains, “The philosophy at CARE Pharmacies has always been customer first. Everything we do is to arm each of our customers with a thorough understanding of what drives their business, and what they should do to advantage themselves and their patients.”
CARE’s success is tied directly to its ability to cater to the individual needs of each one of its members. “That challenge is multidimensional, given the wide diversity of business models and geographical differences that exist within the CARE membership, adds Wysong.
“Every one of our stores has a different set of requirements, and a different idea on how best to take care of their customers,” says Erin Dougherty, the company’s team facilitator and the person responsible for on-boarding new customers.
“We have stores in very close proximity that could not be more different because one might be focused on HIV and the other might be serving general retail patients,” Ey says. “Additionally, there are cultural and socioeconomic considerations within the same neighborhoods where we have stores. And so, we have to remain true to our mission of supporting all of our customers and making sure that we help each of them find new ways to serve their customers,” he adds.
That level of support has enabled CARE Pharmacies to differentiate itself among its colleagues in the specialty pharmacy arena. “We have been able to build out individual road maps of success through our extensive experience on how best to navigate from point A to point B for our stores seeking to diversify their services out into other critical disease states,” says Wysong “Our sourcing platforms support this movement; as well as our ability to work directly with manufacturers around critical access and reimbursement issues,” he adds.
Wysong says that a growing number of its stores have reached dual accreditation, and many more are participating in its emerging specialty pharmacy network plans. “We see many of the most forward-thinking care providers seeking a way to participate in the specialty and specialty ‘lite’ arenas. It is a natural fit for community pharmacy given the level of care to participate, and so CARE is a viable option for those providers, given its experience, its expertise and its existing infrastructure.”
CARE was able to participate in both the federal and state COVID-19 vaccination efforts, effectively addressing the operational and logistical differences in each of the rollouts. Michael Kim, chairman of the cooperative’s board, noted that CARE’s involvement with both NCPA and NACDS (Kim is on the NCPA board, and Wysong is on the NACDS board) were key factors in its success at responding on both levels. “NCPA and NACDS both did a great job of working through the legislative process and laying the groundwork for our COVID-19 testing and vaccination platforms. It would have been difficult to do that as effectively as we did, without the help of those two organizations,” Kim explains.
“The pandemic underscored the necessity for flexible and effective customer-centric care and coordination,” says Berrady, who oversaw CARE’s state COVID-19 vaccination rollout initiative. “The increased demand and workflow challenges that were placed on our pharmacies during the pandemic were significant, but our team responded favorably, and we were able to meet the testing and vaccination needs of our patients.” CARE was able to work with local governance, the Department of Health and Human Services, Healthmart, and Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network to set up testing locations and vaccination sites throughout the process. “We want to thank all of our valued partners and our participating stores for their continued focus and support in helping us improve the lives of the patients that they serve,” she adds.
As DIR fees increased, reimbursement decreased and technology, politics and changing patient demographics drove consolidation in the market, CARE was focused on not just providing care, but programs and services that made enhancing that care possible. “We spent a lot of time building out our manufacturer partnerships over the last year, said Ey. “We did that because we wanted to find new sources of revenue for our stores, and we wanted to prove that we could drive compliance and adherence and improve outcomes in our underserved communities, he added. This work culminated with several manufacturer-sponsored disease state management programs; an HIV PrEP program sponsored by Healthmart and Health and Human services in D.C.; and a partnership with Janssen around Phase 3 clinical trials for COVID-19 in underserved communities.
Wysong is proud of what the cooperative has accomplished over the years. “There are so many things to be proud of,” said Wysong. “I was proud to witness the resilience of our pharmacies and the CARE team throughout the pandemic, and the unwavering commitment they had to their customers and to their patients. I was proud that so many of our pharmacies were able to innovate and adapt to the chaos and changes brought on by the pandemic and proved exactly how critical pharmacy was in providing life-saving health care. But the thing I am probably most proud of is the immeasurable impact that we have had on the lives of the people who come into our stores for care. Our continued growth is a testament to the philosophy of our founders, our board of directors, our stores and the CARE team. What has happened here over the last decade is truly special, and to be able to be a part of it and to work with this team in this capacity is quite an honor,” Wysong says.
“We are optimistic about the future of pharmacy and the role we will play in it,” Wysong adds. “We are also pragmatic about the challenges and the changes likely to accompany reform and the changing pricing models. The important role that pharmacists and pharmacy played during the pandemic was on full display for everyone to see, and as provider status is extended it will likely usher in new opportunities for revenue growth. “We have to make sure our stores are properly positioned to take advantage of that shift in the model with an eye on providing better care,” Wysong concludes.