Plans by several national retail pharmacy chains to expand primary care services and even some clinical laboratory test offerings may be delayed because of financial woes
Times are tough for the nation’s retail pharmacy chains. Rite Aid Corporation, headquartered in Philadelphia, closed 25 stores this year and has now filed for bankruptcy. In a press release, the retail pharmacy company announced it has “initiated a voluntary-court supervised process under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code,” and that it plans to “significantly reduce the company’s debt” and “resolve litigation claims in an equitable manner.”
Rite Aid may eventually close 400 to 500 of its 2,100 stores, Forbes reported.
Meanwhile, other retail pharmacy chains are struggling as well. CVS Health, headquartered in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and Walgreens Boots Alliance of Deerfield, Illinois, are each closing hundreds of stores, according to the Daily Mail.
They are each experiencing problems with labor costs, theft, being disintermediated for prescriptions by pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), and probably building too many stores in most markets.
This is a significant development, in the sense that Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart are each working to open and operate primary care clinics in their stores. This is a way to offset the loss of filling prescriptions, which has migrated to PBMs. Primary care clinics are important to the revenue of local clinical laboratories, but retail pharmacy chains do not yet operate enough primary care clinics in their retail pharmacies to be a major influence on the lab testing marketplace.
“With the support of our lenders, we look forward to strengthening our financial foundation, advancing our transformation initiatives, and accelerating the execution of our turnaround strategy,” said Jeffrey Stein (above), Rite Aid’s CEO/Chief Restructuring Officer, in a press release. Clinical laboratory leaders may want to closely monitor the activities of the retail pharmacies in their areas. (Photo copyright: Rite Aid.)
Multiple Pharmacy Companies at Financial Risk
Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE: RAD) confirmed it continues to operate its retail and online platforms and has received from lenders $3.45 billion in financing to support the company through the bankruptcy process.
However, according to the Associated Press (AP), Rite Aid has experienced “annual losses for several years” and “faces financial risk from lawsuits over opioid prescriptions,” adding that the company reported total debts of $8.6 billion.
Rite Aid is not the only retail pharmacy brand dealing with unwelcome developments. Fortune reported last year that Walgreens and CVS paid a combined $10 billion to 12 states for “involvement in the opioid epidemic.”
Walgreens intends to close 150 US and 300 United Kingdom locations, its former Chief Financial Officer James Kehoe shared in a third quarter 2023 earnings call transcribed by Motley Fool.
And in a news release, CVS announced plans to close 900 stores between 2022 and 2024.
Pharmacy Companies’ Investment in Primary Care
Though they are experiencing difficulties on the retail side, Walgreens and CVS have significantly invested in primary care.
In that same ebrief, we reported on CVS’ acquisition of Oak Street Health, a Chicago-based primary care company, for $10.6 billion. CVS plans to have more than 300 healthcare centers by 2026.
“We looked at our business, and we said, ‘We’re seeing an aging population.’ We know people don’t have access to primary care. We know that value-based care is where it’s going. We know that there’s been a renaissance in home (care). So that’s kind of how we approached our acquisitions,” Karen Lynch, CVS Chief Executive Officer told Fortune.
Other Challenges to Retail Pharmacies
It could be that these major pharmacy chains are hoping entry into primary care will offset the loss of sales from prescriptions that have migrated to PBM organizations.
In addition to reimbursement challenges, retail pharmacies are reportedly experiencing:
High labor costs,
Competition from online, bricks-and-mortar, and grocery businesses, and
Effects from the work-at-home trend, among other struggles.
“I think there’s a number of challenges which are coming to a head. One, you have ongoing reimbursement pressure. The reimbursement level for drugs continues to decrease, so profit margin on the core part of the business is under pressure,” Rodey Wing, a partner in the health and retail practices of global strategy and management consulting firm Kearney, told Drug Store News.
Additionally, the pharmacy’s drug sales need to be high enough to retain pharmacists, who are difficult to recruit in a post-pandemic market, Drug Store News explained.
And in the retail space where products are displayed, some pharmacies struggle to compete with Amazon on convenience and with “dollar” stores on price. And with more people working from home, retail pharmacies are seeing less foot traffic, Drug Store News noted.
Retail pharmacy companies also have competition from pharmacies conveniently situated in grocery and big-box stores, Forbes reported. These include:
Walmart, for its part, reduced operating hours of pharmacies at more than 4,500 sites, Daily Mail reported.
Thus, medical laboratory leaders would be wise to keep an eye on market changes in their local retail pharmacies. Some locations are equipped with clinical laboratory services and a closure could give local labs an opportunity to reach out to patients and physicians who need access to a new testing provider.
Demand for low cost, convenient access to doctors and drugs is driving transformation to decentralized medical care, and retail pharmacy chains see opportunity in offering primary care services
Retail pharmacies and pharmacists continue to play a growing role in healthcare as consumer demand for lower cost and convenience pushes the nation’s medical landscape away from centralized healthcare systems. Clinical laboratories have seen this in the increasing trend of consumers seeking vaccinations and home-health tests at their local drug stores.
Results of a pair of surveys dubbed “Pharmacy Next” conducted by Wolters Kluwer Health revealed that 58% of people are now willing to be treated for non-emergency healthcare conditions in non-traditional medical environments, such as retail pharmacies and clinics.
This is a finding that clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should incorporate into their labs’ strategic planning. It portends a shift in care away from the traditional primary care clinic—typically located in the campus around the community hospital—and toward retail pharmacies. Labs will want to capture the test referrals originating from the primary care clinics located in retail pharmacies.
This willingness to access medical care in non-traditional environments is especially true among people in Generation Y (Millennials) and Generation Z (Zoomers)—people born between 1981-1996 (Gen Y) and 1997-2012 (Gen Z), according to Journey Matters.
“As we saw in last year’s survey, primary care decentralization is continuing—the traditional one doctor-one patient, single point of coordination is vanishing, and this is especially evident in younger generations,” said Peter Bonis, MD, Wolters Kluwer’s Chief Medical Officer, in a press release.
The online surveys of more than 2,000 US adults was weighted by age, gender, household income, and education to be representative of the entire population of the United States.
“By preparing for this shift today, providers can work in concert across care sites to deliver the best care to patients,” said Peter Bonis, MD, Wolters Kluwer Health Chief Medical Officer, in a press release. “Likewise, newer care delivery models, like retail pharmacies and clinics, can ensure they’re ready to meet the expectations of healthcare consumers, who will increasingly be turning to them for a growing range of care needs.” Clinical laboratories may find new revenue opportunities working with the primary care clinics operating within local retail pharmacists and clinicians. (Photo copyright: Wolters Kluwer.)
Key Findings of the Wolters Kluwer Pharmacy Next Studies
Some key insights of the surveys include:
Care is rapidly decentralizing with 58% stating they are likely to visit a local pharmacy for non-emergency medical care.
Younger generations are signaling lasting change within the industry as they are more open to non-traditional styles of care.
61% of respondents envision most primary care services being provided at pharmacies, retail clinics, or pharmacy clinics within the next five years. Of the respondents, 70% of Millennials, 66% of Gen Z, 65% of Gen X, and 43% of Baby Boomers believe this transition will occur.
Consumers are worried about prescription costs and availability.
92% of respondents said physicians and pharmacists should inform patients of generic options.
59% of surveyed consumers have concerns about drug tampering and theft when it involves mail order or subscription prescription services.
One in three respondents believe convenience is more important than credentials in non-emergency situations.
The survey indicates that healthcare consumers across multiple generations are open to a shift in some medical services from doctors to pharmacists. However, there were some notable differences between generations.
Respondents of the Baby Boomer (55%) and Gen X (57%) generations stated they would trust a physician assistant with medication prescriptions, while only 42% of Gen Z and 47% of Millennial respondents felt the same way.
Additionally, Boomers (57%) and Gen X (67%) said they would feel comfortable with a nurse practitioner issuing their prescriptions, while only 44% of Gen Z and 53% of Millennials said they would.
Increased Comfort with Genetic Testing at Pharmacies
Overall, 68% of individuals polled believe their individual genomic data could guide prescription decisions, with Millennials (77%) and Gen Z (74%) being the primary believers. Additionally, 88% of respondents stated they see an incentive for health insurers to cover genomic testing, and 72% said they would be open to genetic testing for personalized medical care.
But pharmacists and clinicians should be aware that advancing pharmacogenomics will require addressing privacy concerns. According to the Wolters Kluwer study, 57% of Gen Z and 53% of Millennials have apprehension surrounding genetic testing due to privacy risks, with 35% of Gen X and Boomers holding that same opinion.
Healthcare Staff Shortages, Drug Cost a Concern
Survey respondents are also concerned about pharmacy staff shortages and expenditures when seeking care at a pharmacy. Half of the participants are worried they will receive the wrong medication, half worry about getting the incorrect dosage, and almost half (47%) fear receiving the wrong directions due to overburdened pharmacy employees.
More people in Gen Z (59%) and Millennials (60%) had these concerns compared to Gen X (44%) and Boomers (38%).
Sadly, a distressing 44% of those surveyed admitted to not filling a prescription due to the costs. That number jumps to a staggering 56% among individuals with no health insurance, compared to 42% for insured patients.
“From hospitals to doctors’ offices, from pharmacies to pharma and beyond, healthcare must move to more affordable and accessible primary care models, adopt innovations that help deliver more personalized care, and address persistent safety and cost concerns that consumers have about their medications,” said Bonis in the press release.
Can Pharmacies Deliver Primary Care as Well as Doctor’s Offices?
Pharmacies may be logical setting for at least some non-emergency health services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 90% of the US population live within five miles of a pharmacy and about 72% of visits to physician’s offices involve the prescribing and monitoring of medication therapies.
“We’re not talking about complicated services. We’re talking low-acuity, very basic care,” said Anita Patel, PharmD, Vice President of Pharmacy Services Development for Walgreens, at the HIMSS conference.
Pharmacies across the country continue to add more healthcare services to their available public offerings. This trend will likely persist into the future as healthcare becomes more expensive, wait times for physician appointments increases, and medical staff shortages rise. Thus, there may be opportunities for clinical laboratories to support pharmacists and doctors working in retail settings.
This deal continues the trend of corporations acquiring physician practices. Already, the majority of physicians are employees, not partners in a private practice physician group. Under corporate ownership, these physician groups often decide to change their clinical laboratory providers. For that reason, managers and pathologists at local medical laboratories will want to explore how they might provide daily lab testing services to the corporate owners of these primary care clinics.
The Hartford Business Journal called VillageMD’s acquisition of Starling Physicians—which is subject to a state investigation for possible certificate-of-need requirement—one of Connecticut’s “more high-profile healthcare merger and acquisition deals in Connecticut in recent years.”
The Starling Physicians group acquisition comes just a few months after
VillageMD paid $8.9 billion for Summit Health-CityMD of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, with primary care services in the Northeast and Oregon. Walgreens invested $3.5 billion in that transaction, a Summit Health news release noted.
These acquisitions by Walgreens/VillageMD provide opportunities for local clinical laboratories to serve the physicians in these practices, though the operations may have a different patient flow and work process than traditional family practice clinics located in medical offices around community hospitals.
“Starling shares our vision of being a physician-led model and they provide care in a compassionate and exceptional way to all the patients they serve. By integrating primary care with specialty care, we are able to optimize access to high-quality care for our patients,” said Tim Barry (above), CEO and Chair of VillageMD in the news release. “This is a natural extension of our growth in the Northeast, including our recent acquisition of Summit Health-CityMD. Together, we are transforming the way healthcare is delivered in the United States.” Clinical laboratories in these areas will want to develop a strategy for serving the physicians practicing at these non-traditional locations. (Photo copyright: The Business Journals.)
Primary Care at Retail Locations a Growing Trend
Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report have reported extensively on the growing trend by pharmacy chains and other retail superstores to add primary care services to their footprint.
In “By 2027, Walgreens Wants 1,000 Primary Care Clinics,” The Dark Report covered how Walgreens had disclosed that it would spend $5.2 billion to acquire a 63% interest to become the majority owner of VillageMD. Fierce Healthcare reported that “[Walgreens] planned to open at least 600 Village Medical at Walgreens primary-care practices across the country by 2025 and 1,000 by 2027.”
VillageMD is a primary care provider with same-day appointments, telehealth virtual visits, in-home care, and clinical laboratory diagnostic testing such as blood tests and urinalysis. Many VillageMD practices are located in buildings next door to Walgreens sites throughout the United States. (Photo copyright: Walgreens.)
Other Retailers Investing in Primary Care
Other retailers have recently taken deeper dives into healthcare as well.
According to Forbes, “The acquisition comes amid a flurry of acquisitions across the US for doctor practices, which are being purchased at an unprecedented pace by large retailers like Walgreens Boots Alliance, CVS Health, Amazon, and Walmart. Meanwhile, medical care providers owned by health insurers like UnitedHealth Group’s Optum and Cigna’s Evernorth are also in the doctor practice bidding war.”
And in February, CVS announced plans to acquire for $10.6 billion Oak Street Health, a Chicago-based primary care company with 169 medical centers across 21 states that plans to have more than 300 centers by 2026.
Do Clinical Laboratories Want Retail Customers?
The question of whether clinical laboratories should pursue retail customers is at this point academic. Consumer demand is driving the change and labs that don’t keep up may be left behind.
“The trend of putting full-service primary care clinics in retail pharmacies is a significant development for the clinical laboratory industry,” wrote Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and The Dark Report. “These clinics will need clinical lab tests and can be expected to shift patients away from traditional medical clinic sites for two reasons—lower price and convenience—since this new generation of primary care clinics will be located around the corner from where people live and work.”
Thus, healthcare system laboratories or large reference labs may want to reach out to Walgreens, CVS, Amazon, and Walmart for test referrals. These and other large retailers are investing heavily in the belief that consumers will continue to seek convenience in their healthcare.
Fewer than 10% of U.S. physicians prescribe drugs electronically, according to The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, only 35 million of the 3.6 billion prescriptions dispensed by U.S. retail pharmacies are sent electronically. One factor discouraging wider acceptance of electronic prescribing is the resistance of older physicians to any change their long-established habits. By contrast, young physicians leaving medical school are fast to adopt e-prescribing when it is available in general practice settings.
There are many advantages to electronic prescriptions. Probably the most significant benefit is prevention of medication errors. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies reports that more than 1.5 million times per year an error in medication leads to patient injury in the U.S. Another major-and oft-overlooked-feature of electronic prescribing is that many electronic systems are capable of identifying generic substitutes for brand name drugs. That saves patients money. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts reports that members who receive electronic prescriptions save, on average, about $250 per year on maintenance medications. Some electronic prescription software is even capable of choosing drugs that comply with a patient’s particular type of insurance.
As a way to motivate doctors to make the switch to electronic prescriptions, some private insurers offer financial incentives and subsidies to help with the cost of this technology. State and national programs are available to ease the technology and implementation costs of the transition, thus lowering the cost for doctors to adopt e-prescribing. In Ohio, WellPoint, Inc. pays 1% above the regular fee schedule to physicians who prescribe electronically. In the Northeast, WellPoint will pay as much as 6% above the regular fee schedule to physicians who use electronic prescriptions to achieve certain performance metrics.
About 70% of pharmacies-including all major chains-are already connected and capable of accepting electronic prescriptions. Experts say that it will soon be common for physicians to use smart phones to transmit prescriptions live from a patient’s room. Laboratories should take note of this slow, but forward progress toward e-prescribing. That’s because, as more physicians begin actively using an e-prescription service, they will want direct electronic access to lab test data.
Digital Prescriptions Gain Favor
Digital prescriptions gain favor, except with docs