Mt. Pleasant area pharmacies strive to survive
By A.J. Panian
Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Prior to opening New Stanton Pharmacy in 1989, Mt. Pleasant's John Ristway gave fleeting thought to establishing a retail prescription drug care business in the borough he calls home.
“I looked into it, but, at the time, there was no need for another pharmacy in town,” said Ristway, 62, who today is semi-retired.
In all, Ristway recalls four independent, locally owned pharmacies lining Main Street in the borough at that time — Gunsallus & Armor Pharmacy, Burns Drug, the Medicine Shoppe and Diamond Pharmacy of Mt. Pleasant.
Nearly a quarter century later, the borough is left with no such locally owned businesses following the December sale of Diamond Pharmacy's retail operation to CVS Pharmacy.
All prescriptions for Diamond customers were subsequently transferred to CVS Pharmacy's Mt. Pleasant location.
Ristway, who still operates his business roughly 6 miles northwest of Mt. Pleasant in New Stanton Borough, is among a handful of local, independent pharmacists who still offer “personalized service with a friendly touch,” he said.
“For some people, they just really prefer an independent pharmacy,” said Ristway, adding that the business will deliver prescriptions for free within a roughly 5-mile radius.
“We're very friendly people to work with, and we're not far away,” he said.
One long-time Ristway customer — New Stanton's Debbie Clark — agreed.
“From the very beginning, John has been very personable to people. He wanted to get to know everybody that came in his store,” Clark said. “I don't know what I'd do without that store.”
Industry's climate presents local challenges
Between the federal government's ever-growing need to cut costs, requirements of pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies, mail-order operations and competition from major chains, local, independently owned pharmacies are “a dying breed,” said Pete Maida Jr., who since 1995 has co-owned Norvelt Pharmacy with his wife and fellow pharmacist, Robin Maida.
“It's no small trick keeping an independent pharmacy open,” said Maida, who purchased the business from his father, Pete Maida Sr.
“It's treacherous waters we navigate, and I don't know what's going to happen going forward,” he said.
In particular, Maida said that preferred provider plans offered by health insurance companies in certain cases do not include independently owned pharmacies as options for cost-conscious customers.
If those people wish to continue to have their prescriptions filled at independent pharmacies, they often must pay more because they are going “out-of-network,” he said.
“People still want what we have to offer, and I believe small pharmacies are the best at patient care, but just because they want our service doesn't mean they are going to be able to use it going forward,” Maida said. “Someone that wants to deal with me but can't because of their insurance.”
And with government control of healthcare, Maida added, continuing efforts to trim costs have affected his buying power when it comes to filling his shelves with marketable medicines.
“What they're really doing is cutting reimbursements to pharmacies,” Maida said.
That means a 500-pill bottle of doxycycline — an antibiotic used to treat many different common bacterial infections — once cost Maida $15 but now costs him $1,600, he said.
Add to that the fact that Maida's practice might not be included on an insurance company's list of preferred options, and customers often find the medicine he sells to be too expensive.
“If you're taking five or six prescriptions, you can't spend what amounts to hundreds of more dollars for them. It's not a level playing field,” Maida said.
Operations offer ‘rare' atmosphere
Mt. Pleasant resident Ed Christofano is the owner and chief executive officer of Hayden's Pharmacy in Youngwood.
He said the corner drug store that was once “a community pillar” is still an option for those who seek it.
“We're still the old-fashioned, apothecary-style business, and that is rare,” said Christofano, who purchased the operation in 2007.
But he agreed that changes in the world of pharmaceuticals has put such operations at a distinct disadvantage, he added.
“Insurance companies will pretty much dictate to both a doctor and a pharmacist what they can provide the customer,” Christofano said. “They tell us how to handle healthcare for our patients.”
That did not stop Christofano from opening a satellite operation at the site of the former Loughran's Pharmacy along Pellis Road in Hempfield in 2010.
“We welcome the transfer of patient information to our pharmacy for those that seek our service,” Christofano said.
Based on state pharmaceutical regulations, a pharmacist can transfer certain medications from an existing pharmacy to a new one per a patient's request because that medication is the property of the patient, Christofano said.
“We can handle the business end of that, so if someone would rather support local businesses, we can help them do that,” he said.
Like Ristway, Christofano said he also offers free delivery services.
“That's important, especially when it comes to taking care of an elderly person or a sick child,” he said.
At Scottdale Pharmacy, owned since 2003 by pharmacist Barbara Hoffman, prescription delivery is provided upon request, even though the business does not advertise provision of such services, she said.
“I've actually picked up some delivery business that Diamond (Pharmacy) had here in Scottdale,” said Hoffman, who purchased the business from her father-in-law, George Hoffman Sr.
“I didn't realize how much there was,” she said.
While she acknowledged the challenges of staying relevant and profitable going forward, Hoffman said the priority she places on sustaining her business is, in large part, homespun.
“Obviously, we're in business to make money ... and we want to do that ... but we're here plugging away because we love our customers, and we want to be there for them, and not throw in the towel,” she said.
Maida said there is more to consider than just the present.
“As an independent businessman, part of my retirement will be made up of the value of this business when I go to sell it,” he said.
Congressman shares view of concerns
Hoffman said she recently wrote a letter to the office of U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, out of concern for the future of her business.
“It's not all about the bottom line. These Medicare Part D plans have taxpayer dollars supporting them, yet independently-owned operations can't take part,” she said. “I'll talk until I'm out of breath on that, and I'm not going to give up.”
On Monday, Murphy legislative aide Brad Grantz called Hoffman to tell her of a proposed rule change by the Baltimore-based Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Under the proposal, seniors would have the same level of co-payments at either a chain drug store or an independent, community pharmacy that is willing to match preferred Medicare Part D cost-sharing rates on commonly used generic and brand-name medications.
Grantz said Murphy planned to meet Wednesday with center officials to determine the range of medications which would apply under the proposal.
“Congressman Murphy said the proposal looks to be promising, and would save money for both federal taxpayers and senior citizens, who would also benefit from greater choices in pharmacies. He welcomes all independent pharmacies with concerns about the Part D program to contact his office and stay engaged on this issue,” Grantz said.
In response, Hoffman said she is encouraged by the proposal's possibilities.
“I'm very happy that Congressman Murphy's office followed through. I got the impression that other complaints had come in from around the country. It's a start,” Hoffman said.
At the minimum, the proposal would give independent pharmacists more control and it would allow them to opportunity to decide whether or not to exercise the option offered, she said.
“That will help us preserve that relationship with our customers we've built over the years,” Hoffman said. “I'll be anxious to see what the end results come to, but it sounds very positive.”
Local leaders want small-town pharmacy back
Over the last six months, Mt. Pleasant Borough Council President Joe Bauer said he and borough Mayor Jerry Lucia, along with borough Manager Jeff Landy, have worked diligently to attract new retail businesses to town.
“I think people are going to begin seeing the results of those efforts soon,” Bauer said.
All of them agree, Bauer said, that bringing an independent pharmacy back to Mt. Pleasant is of top priority.
“We have some areas in town we are definitely looking to develop,” he said.
Nino Barsotti, president of the Mt. Pleasant Business District Authority, said his organization is also focused on bringing such a business back.
“We'd like to see something like that in our town. We have a lot of elderly, they have a lot of trouble getting around, and it would be nice to have some place they can walk to, if necessary,” Barsotti said.
Support for such a development also exists at the county level, according to Chad Amond, executive director of the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce.
“If the market is there, we would be in support of it,” Amond said.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or email@example.com.
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