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Colorado pharmacy techs shine light on shortages, delays

Posted at 6:05 PM, Mar 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-16 20:05:21-04

After almost seven years as a pharmacy technician at a Centennial Walgreens, Melanie- who asked Denver7 to not use her last name to protect her privacy- quit right before her shift last summer.

"I just sent a message to my store manager, and I said, 'I'm really sorry. I know that multiple people have done this now, but I am to the point where I can't do it anymore,'" said Melanie. "I couldn't even get out of bed that day. I physically couldn't handle the stress anymore."

She still has a copy of her six-day-a-week Walgreens work schedule from last year, as well as text after text begging her for help.

"I told my managers, 'We need help. We need to find people. We need bodies that can count by five,'" Melanie said, recalling how pharmacy workers had to juggle prescriptions, COVID-19 shots, vaccinations and even stocking the store, all with no breaks.

"Mistakes happened all the time," she said. "It was a matter of if we were able to get the patient to come back and correct it, make sure that they left happy so their report didn't have to get filed. My pharmacists on a daily basis were scared they were going to be losing their license. To get all of that stuff done on top of vaccines on top of testing, it's not possible. It's physically not possible."

Ali DiLorenzo has been a pharmacy tech at Wheat Ridge Professional Pharmacy for more than a decade and says Walgreens has a reputation in the industry.

"They are overworked, underpaid, and understaffed. They're closing. You can't get a hold of anybody. I mean, it's just a nightmare," said DiLorenzo. "You're in a field where you make a mistake, you could kill somebody."

The Colorado Pharmacists Society tells Contact Denver7 that the issue is much larger than Walgreens, stemming back to insurance companies not reimbursing pharmacies for the full cost of drugs.

"The margins have continued to be less and less and less and less. Sometimes we're getting paid 10 cents to dispense a prescription. That used to be $10," said Emily Zadvorny, executive director of the Colorado Pharmacists Society. "So when you have a situation where, whether that's a chain or an independent, where they can barely scrape by to make enough money to keep the doors open, they're certainly not going to be able to hire four more pharmacists."

Zadvorny says pharmacies have no choice but to sign contracts with the three big health plans, which then reimburse pharmacies for less than the cost of the drug.

"I see it as them forcing you basically to go to mail order where they don't have to staff in-house pharmacy," said DiLorenzo. "Obviously, the insurance companies and the drug companies are making a ton of money. But the pharmacies themselves are not most of them are operating at a loss."

While Wheat Ridge Professional Pharmacy has been taking on more patients, they say they can only take on so many if they are not being reimbursed.

Contact Denver7 reached out to Walgreens, and a spokesman released this statement:

While we are grateful for the hard work and dedication of our pharmacy staff, we also recognize some of the challenges facing our team members -- and healthcare workers in general - in the current environment.   We continue to take steps to help mitigate current staffing pressures, including hiring thousands of new pharmacy team members, adjusting vaccine appointment availability and store hours as needed and expanding remote pharmacy capabilities to help reduce workload. 

Melanie says she is now much happier working for a different company in a more clinical setting and is making twice as much. She wants patients who are waiting in long lines for delayed prescriptions to understand that there is more to the story.

"I feel like a lot of patients would come through and be so upset because they're like, 'You don't care. You don't even care.' We do! I mean, I had techs leaving in tears on a daily basis because they just couldn't handle the stress," she said. "It's not a matter of Walgreens not being able to find people to work. It's that people don't want to work for minimum wage in unworkable conditions."

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