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Family Pharmacy in Enfield selling business to West Lebanon Hannaford 

  • Family Pharmacy co-owner John Croteau, 72, checks out a customer in Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, May 30, 2019. The business is closing on June 8 and transferring prescriptions to Hannaford in West Lebanon, N.H. After 50 years as a pharmacist and 33 years in Enfield, Croteau is retiring. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rosemary Affeldt, of Enfield, N.H., makes a purchase at Family Pharmacy in Enfield on Thursday, May 30, 2019. "I'm sure we'll miss them very, very much," said Affeldt. "A lot of our family stores close. You can't replace the interaction that occurs here in a small business. They're so helpful." Family Pharmacy is the only drugstore along the 40-mile stretch of Route 4 and the last independent pharmacy in Grafton County. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Samantha Ring, an employee for 16 years, left, and Becky Croteau work in the back of Family Pharmacy in Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, May 30, 2019. "I'm just excited for my dad to be retired," said Croteau, who was three when her parents opened the pharmacy. Ring and Croteau, along with her two siblings, will all be transferring to Hannaford in West Lebanon, N.H. after the business closes on June 8. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jared Croteau checks inventory at Family Pharmacy in Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, May 30, 2019. "I've been in and out of this place since I was a little, little kid," said Croteau. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Family Pharmacy co-owner Ed McGee, left, and Edward Rippe joke as they recount memories from working at the pharmacy after posing for a group photo in Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, May 30, 2019. Now retired, Rippe worked at the pharmacy for ten years. He said he always looked forward to coming into work and enjoying the people. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Wednesday, May 29, 2019

ENFIELD — Until the recent arrival of a new Jake’s Market and the opening of a fresh produce stand brought some relief, the Mascoma Valley had been known as a food desert because of the absence of a supermarket.

Add a pharmacy drought to the plagues of inconveniences.

Family Pharmacy, the sole drugstore serving the 40-mile stretch along Route 4 between Miracle Mile in Lebanon and Plymouth, N.H., will close Saturday after 33 years in business. The 130 to 140 prescriptions it dispenses daily will be transferred to Hannaford in West Lebanon, which has acquired the prescription medications and customer files from Family Pharmacy owners John Croteau and Ed McGee.

Both Croteau and McGee, who stepped aside a year ago but remained a partner in the business, have each been working 50 years as pharmacists — the majority of it running their own six-day-a-week small business — and said it is time to retire and enjoy the fruits of their labor and spend time with their families.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” the 72-year-old Croteau reflected last week in the pharmacy’s snug consultation room where he and McGee could talk privately with customers about their health and medications. “People are so appreciative when you take a few minutes out to help them. I just feel sorry for all the people who depend on us.”

Family Pharmacy, which operates out of a nondescript storefront building on Route 4 adjacent to the Petro Mart gas station and convenience store, is the last independent pharmacy in Grafton County and one of only about two dozen remaining in New Hampshire. Like so many other small businesses that meet people’s everyday needs, the local corner drugstore long ago was “rolled up” into corporate convenience store chains like CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens.

No one knows that better than Croteau and McGee. Both started working in pharmacies after school when they were growing up — Croteau in Essex Junction, Vt., McGee in Connecticut — and were drawn to how medications could improve people’s lives and the intensive interaction with customers in dealing with their health concerns.

“We knew everyone by their first name,” said McGee, a 73-year-old Canaan resident.

In 1970, McGee himself bought what had bought Lebanon’s the Red Cross Pharmacy, whose roots dated back to after the Civil War in the 19th century. Croteau came to work for McGee at Red Cross Pharmacy in 1975 and then left in 1986 to open Family Pharmacy in Enfield, with McGee as a financial partner. McGee stayed behind at Red Cross Pharmacy and then later sold it to the Brooks Pharmacy chain, which was later gobbled up by Rite Aid.

After working for Brooks for a couple of years, McGee joined Croteau in Enfield in 1991, and the two have worked together ever since.

“When I bought Red Cross in 1970, there were 271 independent pharmacies in New Hampshire. Now there are about 25,” McGee said. “That’s a huge drop. Running an independent pharmacy these days is extremely difficult.”

Croteau and McGee said it was their hope to sell Family Pharmacy to another independent pharmacy but, despite three interested buyers, none could find a bank willing to finance the purchase, given the dominance of megachains and their control of the dispensing market.

“Some were pretty sketchy,” Croteau said. “There was one from Florida or they wanted us to finance the purchase, which we weren’t going to do.”

So in the end Croteau and McGee agreed to sell their prescription inventory and customer files — which Croteau estimates have thousands of names, although many are inactive — to Hannaford. In addition, Croteau’s son, Jared, who has managed the front of the store; his two daughters, pharmacy technicians Becky and Anna; and Samantha Ring, also a pharma tech, will all join Hannaford in West Lebanon.

“That was a big consideration for me in selling” to the Maine-based chain, Croteau said.

Still, he acknowledged, Family Pharmacy’s closing will be difficult for many of his customers, some of whom make a 50-mile round trip to visit him. “Most of our customers, a lot of folks, live east of us” in the towns of Canaan, Orange, Grafton and Danbury. The nearest pharmacies, other than in Lebanon and Hanover, are in New London and Bristol, N.H.

“There are a lot of customers in the 15-mile to 20-mile one-way range,” he said.

(Eventually, the partners said, they expect to put the Family Pharmacy building and its 1-acre lot — previously shared by Movie Market, one of the last video rental stores in the state before it closed last year — up for sale).

The nature and structure of the pharmacy business has changed radically since Croteau and McGee each finished their five-year (it’s six years now) program in pharmacy school, they said. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, local pharmacists still were buying pharmaceuticals directly from drugmakers like Eli Lilly & Co. and Upjohn (now Pfizer). They also would “compound” their own medications — mostly ointments and creams — when required.

Now pharmacies buy their drugs from wholesalers who distribute to retailers on behalf of manufacturers.

But today the availability and cost of medications is subject to the Byzantine world of pharmacy benefit managers, known as PBMs.

PBMs act as a middleman between drugmakers and insurance companies by negotiating with drugmakers on which drugs will be covered by insurance plans and how much the plan will pay pharmacies for them. PBMs say their role is to find the most effective drugs at the lowest cost, but critics contend their role as a middleman only drives up the cost of medications for consumers.

And the drug business is becoming even murkier for outsiders as pharmacy chains, like CVS — which already owned the PBM Caremark — have acquired insurance companies like Aetna.

Croteau said that before PBMs came into existence in the 1980s, the average prescription cost less than $20 in today’s dollars. Today, he said, the average is $75 to $80 — after insurance.

“Some of these prices are ridiculous, but at our level we don’t have any control over it,” Croteau said.

Croteau, an Enfield resident, said he is grateful for the support Family Pharmacy has received from the Mascoma Valley community. His wife, Diane, taught special education at Enfield Village School, where his kids attended, and all worked in the store growing up.

“When I came out here my son was 6 and my first daughter was 3, and I wanted to be able to spend time with my family. Since I was close to the school, I could go and coach T-ball or see a concert my daughter was in. That was a tremendous thing for my family,” he said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.