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Local pharmacies surviving tight times

MANATEE — Contrary to a national trend, local pharmacies report little or no drop-off in the number of people filling perscriptions despite the weak economy that has pushed Manatee County’s unemployment rate to 11 percent.

Drug discount programs and savings clubs are helping to draw customers, reports Publix, Wal-Mart and Walgreen pharmacies. Manatee Rural Health Services, which offers drug discounts of up to 70 percent for established patients through the clinic’s network of pharmacies, has seen a 7 percent increase in the number of people served since February.

since February.

The local trend runs counter to national reports of slowing prescription sales, which some vendors attribute to people putting off doctor visits and causing fewer prescriptions to be written.

But that doesn’t mean Manatee families have not been hit by loss of benefits, says Brian Martin, director of the pharmacy at Rural health.

“We have seen a fairly significant increase in people who have lost their insurance and are now coming to us as cash/pay customers because they have no benefits,” Martin said. “We are able to pass on significant discounts to patients, 40 to 70 percent, because we are a Federally Qualified Healthcare Center. That is why we are here.”

Only patients of record at Rural Health can use the network’s five pharmacies and four telepharmacies. Rural Health network of 17 community health clinics are in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties and provide health care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. As the local unemployment rate climbed, Rural Health has seen its patient base increase, Martin said.

To illustrate the savings Rural Health can pass on, Martin cited a patient who takes seven medications and has saved $130 a month by becoming an established patient.

Publix Supermarkets reports similar increases in pharmacy customers, lured by the grocery chain’s free antibiotics, said Shannon Patten, spokeswoman out of the Lakeland corporate headquarters.

“We have seen no decrease in prescription sales and no partial refills,” said Patten. “Business is going as strong and busy as ever.”

Wal-Mart Supercenter manager David Johnson said his pharmacy counter is going strong. “Our prescription sales are just fine,” Johnson said. “We have seen no drop off. Our $4 dollar generics really have helped us in this economy.”

Robert Pelot of Pelot’s Pharmacy in Bradenton said many of his customers are Medicare recipients who are enrolled in a Part D drug plan. “Right now, during the first part of the year, people have dollars in their accounts that they can spend on prescriptions, but once they reach the donut hole — a built-in coverage gap during which enrollees pay higher costs — they could be in trouble because their incomes might go down.”

Michael Jackson of the Tallahassee-based Florida Pharmacy Association said it’s possible that communities with an older population on Medicare Part D might be somewhat insulated from declining prescription drug sales as compared to areas that have a young population of growing families.

But like Pelot, Jackson predicts that when seniors reach the coverage gap in their Part D drug plans they will have tough decisions.

“They may elect to forego fulfilling prescriptions, but we don’t recommend that,” Jackson said. “Stopping or slowing down medications could create other problems more difficult to deal with.”

Jackson cautioned that busy pharmacies may not necessarily mean that prescription sales have remained steady.

“Many of the pharmacies that were open 24 hours have cut back their hours and their staff because they have been hit with declining reimbursements as well as the weak economy,” Jackson said.

“Now they have to do as much work in an eight-hour shift that they used to do in 24 hours. Instead of having two pharmacists on duty, maybe they only have one. And some pharmacies are closing because of the current weak market.”

Jackson said that pharmacies across Florida have had to make cutbacks. “In general many of our members are telling us that the prescription business is falling off to some extent with the labor market the way it is.”