Pharmacy in Hill District celebrates one year
Louis Zangara, pharmacist for The Center for Pharmacy Services in the Hill District, fills a prescription Thursday. The pharmacy, run by Duquesne University, is the country's only stand-alone pharmacy run by a university.
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Earlier this month, when a customer came to Duquesne University's Center for Pharmacy Services in the Hill District, pharmacy director Terri Kroh noticed a can of condensed milk in the woman's shopping bag.
"Doing some baking?" she asked.
The woman replied that no, that can of milk would be her dinner for that night and for later in the week. With co-pays for her medications priced at $40 and $50, she couldn't afford much else to eat.
Right then and there, Ms. Kroh sat down and figured out that the customer was being charged more than she should have been because of default billing from a mail-order company. Her correct co-pays were less than $10.
The Center for Pharmacy Services isn't your typical pharmacy -- and not just because it's believed to be the only stand-alone pharmacy in the country operated by a pharmacy school.
One year ago last week, Duquesne opened the Center for Pharmacy Services -- a $600,000 project -- to try to fill a void in the Hill District, which had gone more than a decade without a pharmacy. In its first year, the pharmacy has built up to a clientele of about 1,900 patients a month -- or 95 per day, with about half getting new prescriptions and half getting refills.
"With nothing being up here in the Hill District -- no stores, no supermarkets, nothing convenient -- it's been a godsend," said Kimberly Spruce, community outreach coordinator for primary care health services at Hill House.
Thursday morning, workers arrived to install a neon sign marking the pharmacy's official presence in the Triangle Shops Complex shopping center on Centre Avenue.
The center, which aims to provide each customer with appropriate medical services, is a large, freshly renovated space that looks more like a medical office than a commercial pharmacy. No candy or magazines are for sale, and the over-the-counter drugs are actually behind the counter. While customers wait for their prescriptions to be filled, pharmacists take them in for a consultation and screen them for health problems such as high cholesterol and diabetes.
Pharmacists often act partly as social workers, doing whatever is necessary to improve the health of their patients. The school operates the pharmacy under the federal 340B drug pricing program, enabling pharmacists to provide cheaper medication by partnering with federally qualified health centers, which target poor and underserved people.
According to census data, nearly 40 percent of the population of the Hill District live below the poverty line -- more than triple the rate for Allegheny County as a whole.
Thursday morning, foot traffic was light, but each customer was time-intensive.
A man whose wife's recent death had ended his health insurance coverage was trying to both get access to the drugs he needed immediately and sort out the best insurance and/or Medicare options in the long run.
To help patients, pharmacists navigate a maze of insurance programs, public assistance offerings and drug discounts. About 20 percent of pharmacy customers still cannot pay for their drugs, and Duquesne has started a charity care program to assistant those patients.
"It's a puzzle," said pharmacist Louis Zangara. "The pieces are out there, we just have to fit them together."
One call Thursday came in from an elderly man who had recently moved from the Hill District to Etna. He needed a prescription filled but couldn't travel to pick it up from his doctor or get to the Hill District to get it filled. Pharmacy staff arranged to pick it up from his doctor, fill the prescription and deliver it to Etna.
The pharmacy will deliver prescriptions throughout Allegheny County, said Ms. Kroh, and occasionally even into surrounding counties.
One of the challenges in the pharmacy's first year has been making sure that the community knows that it exists. Pharmacy staff members have been visiting high-rises in the area and holding screenings in community rooms to help spread word of mouth, she said.
They also must convince community members of the pharmacy's staying power.
"Honestly, they're asking, 'How long are you going to be here?' because they haven't had a pharmacy in 10 years," said Douglas Bricker, dean of Duquesne's School of Pharmacy. "When we decided to do this, we knew we had to be in for the long term."
Mr. Bricker didn't know whether the community could support a pharmacy without university support. It's hard to compare the economics of The Center for Pharmacy Services with commercial pharmacies, he said, because Duquesne's pharmacy does not generate any income from the sale of retail goods.
The school is also invested in the pharmacy for the benefit of its own students, who can work there as part of their "experiential education" rotations.
"The word that comes out of their mouths is 'rewarding,' " said Mr. Bricker, of students' experiences at the pharmacy. "Previously, they might have worked in a very busy store and might not have had time to work with patients. It's nice to see that you can make an effect with someone who really needs this kind of attention."
First Published December 26, 2011 12:00 am