Local pharmacists discuss evolving industry
Some family-run, independent pharmacies still survive

By Brandon Anderegg

Feb. 8, 2019

It is believed that a drugstore has been in the Hometown Pharmacy building in Hartland as far back as 1894. The tall rectangular building can be seen in the photo on the right side of East Capitol Drive just beyond an electrical post.
Submitted photo

WAUKESHA — It’s no secret old-timey pharmacies with soda fountains, barstools and stained cabinetry have faded away, but some family-run and independent pharmacies have found a way to survive in an industry marked by acquisitions and mergers.

Dave Schultz, owner of Tobin’s Pharmacy in Oconomowoc, said it was in the 1970s when he began seeing pharmacies evolve. At that time, Schultz and his brother worked for his parents at the family’s Burlington Pharmacy, he said.

This era, Schultz said, was the time that pharmacies became quasi-department stores as they began offering much more than just prescriptions.

“Back in the early ’70s when the store became Tobin’s, that was the tilt at that time,” Schultz said. “It was actually my parents that had the vision that if you’re going to compete, you need to have a different angle.”

Competition against chains has affected the number of mom-and-pop pharmacies seen today, but the impact insurance companies have on small pharmacies has been just as challenging, Schultz added.

“Right now, 18.9 percent of our prescriptions are being paid at below our actual cost of the medication,” Schultz said. “That’s at Tobin’s, but this is happening to most pharmacies.”

Many insurance companies have contracts with certain pharmacies called Medicare D contracts, which are sometimes advertised by providers as “preferred pharmacies,” Schultz said. In other words, established customers may be driven to a different pharmacy because of their insurance plan and how it affects their co-pay for prescriptions.

“What that is forcing people to do is, your established customer is being forced to go to a different provider,” Schultz said. “And that’s a problem in pharmacy because you get to know a customer and you get to know what he’s got going on medically and then they’re forced to go to another provider.”

Washington County is an example of an area in Wisconsin where independent or family-run pharmacies no longer exist. Instead, Walmart and Walgreens may be the only options for Hartford residents, said Steve Volkert, Hartford administrator.

“There’s some successful mom-and-pop pharmacies in the Fox Valley but around here, I don’t think too many of them are still around,” he said.

Rexall in downtown Hartford was one of the last independent pharmacies in the county, said Scott Henke, Hartford Chamber of Commerce executive director. The building is now inhabited by Scoop Deville Ice Cream Shop and Bakery, which Henke said has tried to revive the old pharmacy feel.

“They (Rexall) used to have the soda fountain and the old prescription counters in the back,” said Henke. “It’s got to be 25-plus years in my opinion since something was anywhere, whether it was in Hartford or West Bend.”

Henke, who’s lived in the Hartford area for decades, said he’s not quite sure why pharmacies in the area have evaporated.

“I think it’s a lot like banking with the regulations and different things you have to do,” Henke said. “I think it may just be easier to not compete and go work for them.”

Personal touch

Rick Conner, owner of Hometown Pharmacy in downtown Hartland, said owning an independent pharmacy means going the extra mile for customers. On occasion, Conner will make at-home prescription deliveries as well as administer immunizations at home or in vehicles for those who cannot make it to the pharmacy, he said.

“I’ve opened up the pharmacy after hours to take care of patients and even given out my personal cellphone,” Conner said.

For Conner, independent pharmacies like his take the time to educate their patients on alternatives to prescription medications, such as nutritional supplements and preventive health care plans to avoid certain ailments from becoming long-term, he said.

“You get more personalized care and we have more time to coordinate things with doctors and other health care professionals,” Conner said. “With independents, we have a little more time to tailor the services we offer to get the best outcome for the patient.”

And that extra time pharmacists spend can mean the difference between life and death.

“At least twice last year, we caught two drug interactions that could have potentially killed an individual,” Schultz said. ‘‘People don’t think about that, all they think about is, ‘what’s my co-pay?’”