Pharmacies face shortages

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Pharmacies face shortages

PHOTO BY DAVE BLANCHETTE

Tim Gleason, owner of the Potter Drug stores in Petersburg and Rochester, is working a minimum of 54 hours a week as he and one other pharmacist try to cover both locations.

Pharmacists measure and count every day, but one calculation weighs heavily on Tim Gleason.

"I have two kids, ages 2 and 5. I work from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. That means I have less than an hour to spend with them on weekdays before they go to bed. I’m thinking about shortening my hours so I can spend more time with them," he said.

He isn’t alone. More and more pharmacists are cutting back on their hours or leaving the profession altogether, creating an acute shortage.

Gleason owns the Potter Drug stores in Rochester and Petersburg, and he is trying to operate the stores with just two pharmacists. That means they are both working a minimum of 54 hours each week.

Business is brisk, hours are long and workers are few.

"We had a pharmacist leave for a state job in August, and we haven’t been able to fill the position since," he said. "That means the two of us who remain have to work longer hours."

Gleason said he has sought to hire another druggist but the competition is keen.

Illinois and much of the nation are experiencing a shortage of pharmacists willing to work in retail settings.

The shortage is particularly acute in central and southern Illinois, said Mark Luer, dean of the pharmacy school at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

Luer leads the only pharmacy school south of Interstate 80 in Illinois. Part of the school’s mission is to educate pharmacists who will serve in central and southern Illinois.

"Right now, a new graduate can expect to start out making $125,000, and on top of that, many are being offered $75,000 signing bonuses," he said.

Despite the incentives, area pharmacies are cutting back their hours or temporarily closing. For example, the pharmacy at the Walgreens at 1310 S. Fifth St. in Springfield is temporarily closed, and the one at 2305 W. Monroe St. has cut back on its hours, said Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for Walgreens. Walgreens has also stopped offering 24-hour pharmacy service at its location at 2020 South MacArthur Boulevard.

"The closest 24-hour pharmacy to Springfield is in Pekin," said Garth Reynolds, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association.

There are several causes of the pharmacist crunch.

"Just a few years ago, new graduates were having trouble finding jobs because of consolidation in the industry," Luer of SIU-E said. "Since then, the number of applicants applying to pharmacy schools has dropped by one-third and the number graduating has also dropped. Now we have an acute shortage."

With fewer pharmacists working, those who remain in the industry are often expected to work longer hours. And the COVID pandemic put further stress on retail pharmacists, Luer said.

"A lot of pressures were put on them with vaccinations, COVID testing and everything else," he said. "And it was all happening at a time when support systems really weren’t in place for the increased workloads."

Further complicating the matter is that pharmacies are essential businesses and operated throughout the pandemic, while many schools did not.

Many pharmacists who are parents of school-age children found themselves with the conflicting demands of their profession and their families.

"Many in the profession, which is a majority female, opted to either cut back on their hours or become full-time, stay-at-home parents," Luer added.

"Pharmacy hours are being restricted, and really you were getting down to what you would consider the bare minimum to keep a pharmacy open," he said. "They may only have one pharmacist, whereas in the past they would’ve had several pharmacists working. So, they tried to augment that with pharmacy technicians. But there’s a pharmacy technician shortage going on, too."

Reynolds, of the pharmacists association, said the state’s rising minimum wage has made other, less stressful positions, attractive to technicians.

"I know some pharmacists will go and teach chemistry because we basically have 95% of a chemistry degree with our blended curriculum," he said. "I’ve known pharmacists that have taught chemistry at college levels and in high schools. And they’re doing this because of the pressures of taking care of patients in today’s environment. … We’re asked to do everything. We (administer) COVID vaccinations in addition to everything else. Nothing else stopped. We still have to get everyone’s prescriptions ready."

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at sreeder@illinoistimes.com.

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October 13, 2022 at 07:06AM

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