Side Effects

Walgreens buys and shuts small chain, continuing to shrink Ohio options

Pharmacy options for Ohioans — particularly those using the state's largest Medicaid managed-care provider — continue to shrink.

Walgreens confirmed Friday that the chain recently bought seven community pharmacies and then closed them about two weeks ago. The company closed another recently purchased store in Indianapolis. Walgreens moved customers' prescriptions to its own stores, which in some instances were nearby. In others, not so much.

"We acquired the prescription files and inventory from seven REM pharmacies in Ohio," spokeswoman Kelli Teno said in an email.

The news comes weeks after Walgreens, which has 252 stores in Ohio, confirmed that it would not be in the network for CareSource, the Medicaid managed-care provider for 1.2 million Ohioans. That means that any CareSource patients who used the now-closed pharmacies will have to figure out which Walgreens they were switched to and have their scripts moved to a pharmacy that is in the CareSource network.

It also comes after CVS, Ohio's largest retail chain, bought 20 Ritzman pharmacies in Northeast Ohio and closed all but three in January.

In the latest action, referred to by some in the industry as a "buy and close," Walgreens bought the remaining pharmacies owned by Dayton-based REM chain and closed them. They're located as far north as Owl Drugs in West Milton and as far south as Main Street Pharmacy in Blanchester, and as far east as one of the Arensberg pharmacies in Newark.

The drive to the nearest Walgreens is as short as four minutes in the case of Fairfield Pharmacy in the Cincinnati suburb of Fairfield. The longest is 30 minutes — in the case of West End Pharmacy in Wilmington. Those customers' prescriptions were transferred to a Walgreens in Xenia.

“Considering that many Medicaid patients are extremely mobility challenged and lack adequate transportation, the notion that they’d have to travel as much as 30 miles in the dead of winter to see a pharmacist is absurd,” said Antonio Ciaccia of the Ohio Pharmacists Association.

Tom Black, who worked as a pharmacist at Lukas Pharmacy in Lynchburg until Oct. 22, said "Walgreens I'm sure wanted to add prescriptions" to its existing stores. Now, unlike those in Wilmington, his former customers have no choice but to drive out of town to get to a pharmacy. Their prescriptions were moved to a Walgreens in Hillsboro, 19 minutes away.

Black described his old store's in-town delivery service, saying pharmacy employees would even go out and check on elderly and sick customers at family members' request. And while he said he understood that companies have to make decisions that are in their financial interest, it slights the customers to not give them fair warning of such closures.

"Some of them probably won't know it's closed until they go to the store and see a sign on the door," he said.

Black wants the Ohio legislature to pass a law requiring that customers be given at least 30 days in advance of a pharmacy closure. He said those who buy pharmacies intending to close them don't want to give much notice for fear that customers will transfer their scripts beforehand.

Walgreens closed the REM stores about two weeks ago and it hasn't notified customers yet.

"All files and prescriptions have been transferred to the nearest Walgreens pharmacy and impacted patients will receive a letter in the mail shortly with further details about their prescription records," Teno said. "We have numerous locations in Ohio and anticipate minimal disruption to the small number of customers and patients affected. We look forward to welcoming these REM patients to our pharmacies."

For now, if you call the number for, say, the Germantown Prescription Center, you get the automated answering system for one of the Walgreens in Miamisburg. "We bought out the prescription center, so the clients come here," a person at the pharmacy said.

As with many pharmacies in small towns, Black said that a high percentage of his customers were elderly or on Medicaid — or both. For more than a year, The Dispatch has been investigating pharmacy middlemen who handle Medicaid reimbursements to pharmacies, and many independent pharmacists have said the reimbursements are so low that they make it hard or impossible to stay in business.

As some have closed, they've created deserts where those with transportation challenges find it difficult to go to the pharmacy, consult with a medical professional and get their prescriptions.

Bad health outcomes have been linked to pharmacy closures, and Lynne Fruth, president of a pharmacy chain that operates in Southeast Ohio and West Virginia, said it's only common sense that such barriers would keep people from adhering to their prescriptions.

"What we're seeing in Ohio is not the removal of barriers," she said. "We're adding barriers."