Staff shortages at NH., Vt. pharmacies may mean longer lines

  • Steven Simpson, the supervising pharmacist at Kinney Drugs in Barre, prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger VTDigger — Mike Dougherty

Published: 12/10/2021 4:16:06 PM
Modified: 12/10/2021 4:15:51 PM

Pharmacy technician Jennifer Meade has learned to fly through filling prescriptions.

The multistep process — which involves logging in prescriptions, printing labels, counting pills and making sure patients pay for and take the correct medication home — takes roughly 15 minutes, said Meade, who worked at CVS in West Lebanon for seven years.

But that window gradually shrunk to 30 seconds per prescription sometime over the summer, she said. By the time she quit working at the Upper Valley CVS in the fall, Meade and her colleagues could not seem to catch up. Then in October, the workload tripled overnight as CVS purchased patients and prescriptions when an independent pharmacy in nearby Woodstock went out of business.

“There were some prescriptions put under the wrong patient,” Meade said. “There were some patients getting the wrong medications.”

CVS did not respond to questions about Meade’s assertions, but spokesperson Tara Burke said in an emailed statement the chain has embarked on a nationwide hiring push.

Struggles to hire have long vexed nearly every corner of the health care system, but the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Vermont’s nursing shortage has been acutely visible lately, as unfilled positions forced hospitals to keep beds empty even as more patients need care.

Pharmacies, too, are feeling the pressure. COVID-19 vaccinations and testing are taking time away from the regular work of fielding customer questions, sorting out insurance issues and dispensing medications. Technicians, generally the workhorse of the average pharmacy, are depleted and burnt out, and many of them are quitting their jobs for higher-paid positions in manufacturing and other fields.

“Right now, all of these positions are competing for the very few employees that are out there looking for a job,” said Maureen Hebert, associate dean at Vermont Technical College’s Office of Continuing Education and Workforce Development. “Manufacturing might pay $22 an hour.”

A pharmacy technician job, in contrast, might pay $15 an hour, said Hebert, who oversees the pharmacy tech education program at the college in Randolph.

Meade said her workload ultimately took a toll. There was no time to answer the phone or help customers with their insurance questions. Long lines and hourlong waits for prescriptions became the norm, even when the pharmacy did away with the drive-thru and cut hours significantly.

“When we got to the point where we were behind with everyone’s prescriptions every single day, everyone that came in was mad,” she said. “(Their) frustration is completely understandable, but it’s just hard to hear day in and day out.”

Her experience is not unique. A 2020 Vermont Office of Professional Regulation survey of roughly 250 pharmacists showed these pressures are especially severe in large-chain national chain pharmacies.

More than 80% of national chain pharmacists, including CVS and Walgreens, said they did not have enough technicians, compared with roughly 40% of independent pharmacies, according to the survey. One in three pharmacists at Vermont’s national chain pharmacies said staffing levels compromised patient safety or quality of care, compared with 5% of independent pharmacies.

A lack of pharmacy technicians and other support staff is driving some of these issues, said Jeff Hochberg, president of the Vermont Retail Drug Association.

“There’s plenty of pharmacists looking for work due to the increasing store closures that are going on,” he said. “So what we’re seeing, it’s really a perfect storm that’s been brewing for a long time in pharmacies.”

Walgreens, the largest national chain in Vermont, cut hours in Idaho, Colorado, Indiana and Kentucky in the fall after its stores couldn’t staff up. Some of the chain’s pharmacies in Brattleboro, Vt., and Burlington also were affected. The Walgreens in Williston, Vt., is now closed on weekends, and the chain’s nearest pharmacy in Essex Junction is also closed on the weekend.

“I just hope I don’t get sick on the weekend,” Williston resident Jude Hersey said.

The 80-year-old has a Medicare prescription plan that offers better drug prices at Walgreens. Hersey said she brought up the closure in a recent conversation with her insurance company.

Hersey recalled the agent on the phone telling her, “Yes, but we’ve heard that it will get worse before it gets better, but it will get better eventually.”

Kris Lathan, a Walgreens spokesperson, said in an email that staffing shortages forced the chain to temporarily adjust its hours when there is not enough staff. The retail chain is now offering sign-on and retention bonuses to technicians and has recently increased the starting hourly wage of technicians to $15 an hour.

Burke, the CVS spokesperson, said the retail chain will “continue to meet the demand for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, in addition to providing our patients with trusted pharmacy care and innovative health solutions.” CVS owns and operates nine pharmacies in Vermont.

Independent pharmacies are beginning to feel the pinch too, said John Marraffa Jr., president of Kinney Drugs, a regional pharmacy chain with locations across New York and Vermont. The chain has retained enough staff to keep its normal hours, but Kinney pharmacies are now serving patients who used to get their prescriptions elsewhere.

“Our services are not gone. It’s just that a typical 20- (to) 25-minute wait for a prescription might now be 35 minutes,” said Marraffa, a former executive at Walgreens.

Sign up for our free email updates
Valley News Daily Headlines
Valley News Contests and Promotions
Valley News Extra Time
Valley News Breaking News

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy