Babbitt's pharmacy victimized by fire, then the times

Frank Jaeger
Long-time, but now retired Babbitt, Minn. pharmacist Frank Jaeger looks around the newly rebuilt Zup's Food Market Monday, May 21, 2012 in Babbitt, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

When a fire destroyed the only grocery store and pharmacy here last fall, it was a devastating loss for the Iron Range town of 1,500.

The grocery store, Zup's, will open a brand new supermarket Tuesday, but the pharmacy will remain empty, victim of a growing rural trend.

Independent pharmacies still make up nearly half of all the pharmacies in rural Minnesota. But their numbers are dwindling, and chain stores are not moving in to take their place. Over the past three years, 55 independent pharmacies outside the Twin Cities have closed their doors, according to the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.

The trend is likely to accelerate. University of Minnesota research shows many of the remaining independent pharmacists are close to retirement.

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Pharmacies everywhere have been hurt by declining reimbursements from insurance companies. But University of Minnesota Duluth pharmacy professor Tim Stratton says rural pharmacies have been hit harder because prescriptions make up a bigger percentage of their business.

Stocking shelves
Kristi Zupancich, daughter of Ed Zupancich, stocks shelves Monday, May 21, 2012 at the rebuilt Zup's Food Market in Babbitt, Minn. Zupancich and others were prepping the store for an anticipated opening four days later.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"For a $100 prescription, the pharmacist may be making as little as $4 or $5, hardly enough to keep the business operating," Stratton said.

For Frank Jaeger in Babbitt, the end came with a 2 a.m. phone call from his daughter on Sept. 24, 2011.

The drug store he had owned for over half a century was on fire. He got dressed and drove up to see.

"I sat in the truck and watched it burn. That was my life — 52 years, shot in the butt, over a little fire."

When Babbitt Drug and Zup's supermarket, both linchpins of this small community, were destroyed, Jaeger was done, he said.

"I knew right away. 77 years old, I'm too old to start all over again. And I was tired of working."

He said he would have sold the business 10 years earlier if he could have.

Stocking shelves
Dorothy Hitchcock (left) and Theresa Jamnick (right) stock shelves Monday. May 21, 2012 at the rebuilt Zup's Food Market in Babbitt, Minn. Hitchcock and Jamnick were prepping the store for an anticipated opening four days later. Hitchcock is Ed Zupancich's mother-in-law while Jamnick is Zupancich's aunt.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"But I knew in my own mind that I'd have one heck of a time selling the store in a small town, I was positive I wouldn't be able to sell it. Independent pharmacies are on their way out. It's all big retailers that have taken over," he said.

Jaeger said he filled about 50 prescriptions a day, compared to maybe 400 at larger retailers in Virginia and Ely nearby. He also lost customers whose insurers required them to buy from mail-order companies. Like many rural pharmacists, he would sometimes work very long hours.

"We've had the utmost love for Frank Jaeger, because he was always there," said Glenn Anderson, mayor and life-long resident.

"If you had a prescription and ran out on the weekend and called him at home, he'd show up. You call him on Sunday, no big deal."

Since the fire, Anderson says locals have driven 15 miles to Ely, or 35 to Virginia. Neighbors have helped out seniors who don't drive, or stores have mailed prescriptions.

Construction continues Monday, May 21, 2012 at Zup's Food Market in Babbitt, Minn. The food market is being built on the grounds of the original grocery store that burned to the ground last year.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

It's unclear how much impact the loss of a local pharmacist has on a community's health. Industry-connected research is conflicting. UCLA Professor of Medicine Kenrik Duru has authored two studies that show that patients with diabetes and high cholesterol are more likely to receive the medications they need when they use mail-order pharmacies.

"And we think that a lot of that benefit is due to the cost savings, where you get three months worth of pills for two months worth of co-payments."

Those are prices that independent pharmacies can't match.

In any case, University of Minnesota pharmacy professor Todd Sorensen says one thing is clear.

"If a pharmacy leaves a community, it's almost impossible to bring one back."

But Zup's manager Ed Zupancich hasn't given up on finding someone to occupy the pharmacy.

"If there's a pharmacist out there who's looking for a small town business, I have all the plumbing and electrical to put it there."

To Jaeger, that would be a gamble, but the return would be the gratitude of an entire town.