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Pharmacist shortages and heavy workloads challenge drugstores heading into their busy season

In recent years, drugstores have struggled to fill open pharmacist and pharmacy technician positions, even as many have raised pay and dangled signing bonuses.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

A dose of patience may come in handy at the pharmacy counter this fall.

Drug and staffing shortages haven’t gone away. Stores are starting their busiest time of year as customers look for help with colds and the flu. And this fall, pharmacists are dealing with a new vaccine and the start of insurance coverage for COVID-19 shots.

Some drugstores have addressed their challenges by adding employees at busy hours. But experts say many pharmacies, particularly the big chains, still don’t have enough workers behind the counter.

Chris Adkins said he left his job as a pharmacist with a major drugstore chain a couple years ago because of the stress. Aside from filling and checking prescriptions, Adkins routinely answered the phone, ran the register and stocked pharmacy shelves.

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“I just didn’t have time for the patients,” he said. “I am OK working hard and working long hours, but I just felt like I was not doing a good job as a pharmacist.”

In recent years, drugstores have struggled to fill open pharmacist and pharmacy technician positions, even as many have raised pay and dangled signing bonuses.

Larger drugstore chains often operate stores with only one pharmacist on duty per shift, said Richard Dang, an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California. That kind of thin staffing can make it hard to recruit employees.

“I think that many pharmacists in the profession are hesitant to work for a company where they don’t feel supported,” said Dang, a former president of the California Pharmacists Association.

Customers have noticed.

John Staed, of Pelham, Alabama, said a CVS pharmacist gave him the wrong prescription about a decade ago: the pills were a different color than usual. He worries the chances for another mistake could increase as pharmacists take on more work.

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“These pharmacists always look stressed,” he said.

A CVS spokeswoman said the company is focused on addressing concerns raised by its pharmacists and has taken several actions, including “providing additional pharmacy resources” in markets that need support. She declined to say how many pharmacists or technicians the company has hired.

Former Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer said in late June that the company had added more than 1,000 pharmacists in the second quarter, but was running into a shortage of job candidates. Walgreens is adding processing centers around the country to ease some of the prescription workload for its stores.

Brewer, who left in late August, also said the company was limiting hours at 1,100 pharmacies, or about 12% of its U.S. locations. That was down from 1,600 earlier this year, but a company executive has said it doesn't expect to return all pharmacies to normal operating hours by year's end.

Labor strife and staffing shortages in health care are not isolated to drugstores, as the recent Kaiser Permanente strike shows.

But drugstores have some additional challenges in the fall. Many customers come to them for vaccines for COVID-19, flu and pneumonia. Plus, federal officials have approved a new shot for people ages 60 and older for a virus called RSV.

All told, CVS touts in a pharmacy counter brochure that the company can offer more than 15 vaccines to customers.

Ongoing drug shortages also have kept pharmacy workers on the phone more.

Jonathan Marquess said one of his drugstores fielded 100 questions one day last fall about the antibiotic amoxicillin and the attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder treatment Adderall, two drugs in short supply.

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Marquess runs several independent pharmacies in Georgia and serves on the National Community Pharmacists Association board. He has done a few things to help his stores adapt to the extra workload, he said, including training all employees to answer basic questions about vaccines.

Marquess also adds extra staff when he knows they will have an influx of customers, like when a nearby company sends its employees over for vaccines.

“We learned from our experiences,” he said. “Training your entire staff is very, very important.”

Pharmacists say customers aren't powerless and can help things run smoothly.

People should bring all their insurance cards to vaccine appointments, especially since insurance coverage is new for the COVID-19 shots, Marquess said.

Dang said customers should avoid showing up right after pharmacies reopen from a lunch break or just before they close, times when pharmacists and technicians are especially busy.

Making appointments for vaccines gives pharmacy workers a better sense for their workload. Calling several days in advance for a prescription refill also helps, said Jen Cocohoba, a pharmacy professor at University of California San Francisco.

“That tiny piece of control can help, because there’s so many things you cannot predict when you’re inside the community pharmacy,” Cocohoba said.