Drugstore chains will help explain Obamacare to public

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Regardless of whether you have health insurance, if you're under 40 you're far more likely to visit your local pharmacy than you are your primary care physician or any of your specialists -- and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is banking on that.

It's why HHS is partnering with pharmacy chains across the country -- including, most recently, Cumberland County-based Rite Aid Corp. -- to spread the word about Obamacare and the new online health insurance marketplaces set to launch Oct. 1.

"A lot of people [may] go to the doctor once a year, but they may get a prescription filled every two weeks, [or] be there to buy something else," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week.

An industry study from 2007 suggests that customers visit their pharmacy two or three times a month, on average, which is 12 times more often than they visit a primary care doctor and 16 times more often than they see a specialist.

"Often, pharmacists are at the front end of health care delivery," she said.

And they'll be at the front lines promoting the 2010 Affordable Care Act, as well. Last week, Rite Aid announced plans to put independent insurance agents in more than 2,000 of its stores nationwide, starting Oct. 1, which is the first day the uninsured can shop for and enroll in the federally subsidized health plans available on the new insurance exchanges.

The rest of the stores -- in total, Rite Aid runs 4,600 pharmacies in 31 states and Washington, D.C. -- will have informational brochures on hand. The company also has set up its own website to educate potential health insurance consumers.

Rite Aid CEO John Standley, in a statement issued last week, said, "With the implementation of the health insurance marketplace, our customers will now have many new choices to make in the coming enrollment period. ... We know they will look to Rite Aid for information and guidance, and that's why we're providing free resources."

Rite Aid is the fifth-largest pharmacy in the U.S. -- behind CVS, Walgreen Co., Express Scripts (a benefits manager and mail-order pharmacy) and Walmart -- and with dozens of locations in the Pittsburgh area, Rite Aid is the local market leader.

CVS and Walgreens are in on the act, too, Ms. Sebelius said. In July, CVS Caremark announced its own plans to inform uninsured customers by hosting trained "navigators," who will educate people about their coverage options in stores and at community events. And Walgreens intends to team with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association to educate uninsured customers.

"The pharmacists have stepped up in a variety of ways," Ms. Sebelius said.

And for a variety of reasons -- partly because it's good customer service and partly because it's just good business.

"To the extent that 25 million more Americans get insurance and they will fill their prescriptions, that is certainly a good thing for our company," Helena Foulkes, CVS Caremark's chief health care strategy and marketing officer, said to The Washington Post this summer.

Similarly, some pharmacists and pharmacies acted as tacit evangelists for President George W. Bush's Medicare Part D expansion, which offered blanket prescription coverage to senior citizens for the first time under the Medicare program. Part D, in turn, resulted in 158 million new prescriptions issued in the U.S. in 2006, the first year of the benefit.

Pharmacies have been blurring the line between themselves and traditional providers, positioning themselves as the gateway to the larger health care system. Some pharmacies have in-store health clinics and on-site nurse practitioners; others act somewhat like doctors in developing personalized "health plans" to address chronic conditions, reduce hospital readmissions, even developing their own "accountable care organizations," as Walgreens is doing.

"With nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population either without a primary care physician or not utilizing one, and more than 30 million people gaining insurance coverage in 2014 under health care reform, we are well-positioned to fill the void in care," Walgreens president and CEO Greg Wasson said during a 2013 shareholders meeting.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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