Independent pharmacies offer personal services to compete with national chains - The Buffalo News
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Independent pharmacies offer personal services to compete with national chains

Some chain-store pharmacies deliver medications for free, but Mobile Pharmacy Solutions is taking it a step further.

At the business in the Buffalo Medical Campus Innovation Center, pharmacists will make appointments to personally deliver medications and give in-home consultations.

Some question whether the mobile pharmacy can sustain the policy, but it is an example of how competitive the pharmacy business has become. Many independent pharmacies are stretching to find new niches to attract customers.

“How can a pharmacy compete with Walgreens?” posed Patrick Whalen, the chief operating officer for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “They have to be creative.”

That can mean offering vaccines and flu shots, or even educational classes.

Dean Trzewieczynski, CEO of Mobile Pharmacy Solutions, created the business with three other University at Buffalo pharmacy school graduates, Ken Andrus, Scott Monte and Patrick Comerford, all part-owners.

“We want to be your local pharmacy,” Trzewieczynski said. “But our model allows us to deliver all over Western New York.”

Nationwide community pharmacies “promote a personal touch,” and are exploring new avenues in order to compete with chains, said John Norton, a spokesman for the National Community Pharmacists Association.

In New York State there are 2,215 independent pharmacies and 1,633 chain pharmacies, or 57.6 percent independents, according to NCPA, which is a bit unusual for a state with so many cities.

Selig Corman, a consultant pharmacist for the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York, expects it to eventually reach an even split. He’s seeing an increase in chain openings within the state.

To keep a competitive edge, Corman said independent pharmacies are providing immunizations and compounding medications. Nevertheless, he was surprised by Mobile Pharmacy Solutions’ business model. While it “sounds innovative,” he wonders how the operation is able to stay profitable.

Norton, of the national association, said many independent pharmacies are starting to offer delivery options, but having pharmacists make house calls is unique.

A NYC tradition

Brad Arthur, who owns Black Rock Pharmacy in Buffalo, said independents are “holding their own” in Western New York, but compared to how things were about 25 years ago, there are now “far fewer.” Arthur, who also serves as a chairman for NCPA, used to own eight stores, but now has one with 11 employees.

Steve Giroux, who owns four pharmacies in the area, said there’s a misconception that independent pharmacies have “become a dinosaur.” New York City is bursting with them because they’ve matured in developing neighborhoods over generations, he said, which contributes to the state’s overall independent majority.

Norton said, typically, the more rural the state the more likely it is to have an independent majority.

Arthur said his pharmacy offers immunizations, like the flu or shingles vaccines, to “keep (the store) relevant.” His store also has a sprawling retail front, something most independent pharmacies are moving away from, he said. He worries a new Dollar General store that opened nearby is going to “kill” his retail sales.

Giroux noted his Middleport location has certification to host diabetes education classes, sometimes in remote locations, and they’re funded by Medicare.

In addition to Trzewieczynski’s pharmacists who make house calls, the pharmacy also has its own delivery team, which drops off prescriptions at four set times a day, Monday through Fridays, and twice on Saturdays. They also use the postal service for non-urgent deliveries.

The pharmacy has built about 30 relationships within the local health care community, which provide a cycle of referrals, Trzewieczynski said.

Pharmacists also make regular calls to check in on clients. The pharmacy just launched the “Prescription Pop-Pack Program,” which gives customers the option to have their medications delivered to them in organized plastic pop-out packages, so they know which pills to take and when to take them, and to guarantee their security. Multiple studies show Americas are racking up nearly $300 billion per year from misappropriated medication use. The new program also brought them 30 new clients.

“And it’s all free,” Trzewieczynski added.

The company says if a customer was to take advantage of all of the mobile pharmacy’s no-cost services within one year, it would be about a $1,200 value.

It may seem like a counterintuitive business model.

“It has not been easy,” Trzewieczynski said. The company’s owners have “had to make sacrifices” with the “intention of getting the business into the black,” since the mobile pharmacy’s 2009 inception. They work the free services into their budget and set sales goals to cover the costs.

The pharmacy now has 22 employees and a residency program for pharmaceutical students, which provides education for the students as well as the extra help needed for visiting customers. The company also applies for applicable grants.

Monte pointed out that the pharmacy’s patients stay with them “for a long period of time” and they also have high adherence rates, or percentage of customers taking medications as directed.

It’s been a lot of “trial and error over the years,” Monte said. “But we have endured through the harder times and have a found a workflow to sustain the extra level of care.”

The company, once known as Vascuscript, moved from Cheektowaga to the Innovation Center in December 2012. The new space has a small retail storefront and a compounding lab, which allows pharmacists to change the forms of medications, like into ointments or lozenges, or to alter dosages. Compounding services have grown among independents in general.

Since December, the business has grown monthly at a rate of about 11 percent. The pharmacy has gone from providing about 950 prescriptions per week, when they were operating out of Cheektowaga, to about 1,400 weekly prescription fills.

Disruptive model

Mobile Pharmacy Solutions isn’t the only Buffalo business changing up the traditional model for health care.

It shares a suite on the ground floor of the Innovation Center with two other businesses, Advantage Home Telehealth, which can remotely monitor a patients’ vitals, and Mobile Primary Care, a team of traveling nurse practitioners. The three separate businesses have created a network in the umbrella title, Mobile HealthCare Connections. They work together to offer complete mobile care to shared customers.

Whalen, COO of the medical campus, thinks the trio make a valuable team.

“The business model is what we call disruptive,” Whalen said. “They’re kind of breaking a lot of rules.”

With a model that allows medications delivered to your home for free by a pharmacist, vitals that can be monitored remotely in real time, and traveling nurse practitioners who can service home-bound patients, together the companies are “changing the way things have always been done,” Whalen said.

The three companies came together when applying for a Medicaid grant last year, and though they did not receive it, they’re planning to try again this year, said Brian Egan, the CEO of Mobile HealthCare Connections, who spearheaded the collaborative.

Trzewieczynski feels the union is helping pave the way for a “new health care environment,” and said each company, on its own, has things that “set them apart” from competitors.

The Innovation Center houses 63 business, according to Whalen. It has incubator offices, where entrepreneurs can pay $650 per month for a furnished working space with telephones and internet access. The businesses are expected to eventually outgrow and “graduate” the start-up space; the Center has had four “graduates,” Whalen said.

Egan’s Advantage Home Telehealth was the first start-up to enter the incubator space and was also the first company to lease space in the facility in October 2012. They moved from a fourth floor incubator office to the suite that all of Mobile HealthCare Connections now shares.

The Center’s mission is “growing the economy,” Whalen said.

“The folks in this building are not just entrepreneurs,” he said. “They’re entrepreneurs who will transform our region.”

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