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HealthPartners decision illustrates a trend for pharmacies: Fewer of them

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A pharmacist at the counter.
A pharmacist works at his desk located next to the prescription pick up counter in New York on May 15, 2013. The retail pharmacy industry has been shrinking for more than a decade, starting with the closing of many independent pharmacies in rural areas. Industry experts say that trend is likely to accelerate.
Mark Lennihan | AP file 2013

When HealthPartners closes 30 retail pharmacies and its mail-order pharmacy business early next year, about 300 people will lose their jobs, including 100 pharmacists.

The insurer, which also runs clinics and hospitals, declined to discuss the closures. The retail pharmacy industry has been shrinking for more than a decade, starting with the closing of many independent pharmacies in rural areas.

That trend is likely to accelerate, said Sarah Derr, executive director of the Minnesota Pharmacists Association.

She pointed out that the National Community Pharmacists Association recently predicted up to 58 percent of pharmacies nationwide could close in the next two years.

"And I know that sounds like a very scary statistic,” she said. “However, I am hopeful that we are able to restructure the way that we are paid — and we're seeing this with some payers already — in order to keep doors open and potentially open pharmacies in the next few years."

Derr said pharmacies are paid on the volume of prescriptions they fill, not the professional services pharmacists provide to patients.

Randall Seifert, associate dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy, said the HealthPartners decision is not surprising because retail pharmacy profit margins are shrinking.

"Pressure that has been put on the pharmacies from a perspective of reimbursement for services through the pharmacy benefit managers and the health insurance companies have actually caused a lot of distress and a lot of consolidation in the marketplace, relative to retail pharmacies," he said.

Job prospects are tough for the 100 HealthPartners pharmacists who will be out of work.

"It's definitely a difficult environment at this point,” said Derr, who noted that pharmacy openings in Minnesota are few.

"I've heard of some pharmacists who went into residency, which is an additional year of training or two years of training, postgraduate work, that are not able to find jobs and they've been looking since July," she said.

And the tight job market is not just in Minnesota. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts no growth in pharmacy jobs through 2028.

Derr said organizations like hers recognize prescriptions might be filled by machines in the future. Many states now allow technicians to fill prescriptions.

Experts say the pharmacy profession is in transition. Future jobs will be in areas like using genetics to prescribe medications that work best for individuals, Derr said, or working alongside doctors in a clinic to manage patients with multiple drug treatments.

"So, I think going forward we will change to more of a clinical pharmacy focus,” she said. “We're really looking at what can the pharmacist provide to the patient and not focusing on the little technical steps of filling a prescription."

The changing industry and predictions of few future jobs have caused a slump in the number of people choosing to pursue pharmacy degrees.

But Seifert, at the College of Pharmacy, doesn't see the future as bleak — just different. He said the university is trying to change with the industry.

"We are really exploring and working in areas where we give our students some opportunities to be able to look at different careers within pharmacy," he said.

Of course, depending on political decisions that change the health care system, the future of pharmacy could shift again.