MEDICARE CARDS CALL FOR MORE RX STAFFERS

CHICAGO -- Supermarket pharmacies need to staff up to meet the needs of patients asking about the new Medicare prescription drug discount program, said John Fegan, senior vice president, pharmacy, Ahold USA, Quincy, Mass. Fegan's presentation here last week was part of a Category Close-Up session at the Food Marketing Institute Show, which was co-located with the FMI Pharmacy Conference.Introducing

CHICAGO -- Supermarket pharmacies need to staff up to meet the needs of patients asking about the new Medicare prescription drug discount program, said John Fegan, senior vice president, pharmacy, Ahold USA, Quincy, Mass. Fegan's presentation here last week was part of a Category Close-Up session at the Food Marketing Institute Show, which was co-located with the FMI Pharmacy Conference.

Introducing his topic, Fegan commented on a statement made earlier in the show by Tommy Thompson. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services said the Medicare drug card program was not confusing, but complex. Fegan countered, "It's easy for him to say that, but right now we are on the pharmacy end receiving these questions."

Some Medicare recipients may use the Internet or the phone to get information, but most will seek it at their local pharmacy. "It is going to come down to the pharmacist at store level having to take the time to explain what the cards are about. We hope it is going to be easier than that, but I don't think so," Fegan lamented.

The Thompson remark, which was made earnestly, was met with derision by many attendees of the Pharmacy Conference, where the new Medicare program was the hot topic.

Initially, there were 28 drug card sponsors offering 50 different cards. Now more are being added, and there may be up to 60 before the program is under way, said Donald Moran, president, Moran Co., Arlington, Va., a presenter at two Medicare-themed sessions. Meanwhile, a Medicare Web site providing price comparisons of the various cards had to be pulled down shortly after it was implemented last Thursday due to a number of inaccuracies, he noted.

"I think we are going to see a continuing amount of confusion on this for several weeks, Secretary Thompson's comments not withstanding," Moran said.

"This is not as clear as it could be," Fegan stated.

The job of explaining the new program to Medicare recipients -- 25% have cognitive disabilities -- is going to be up to retailers. "That's going to be a challenge to us," Fegan predicted. Ahold will use internal personnel to supplement pharmacy staffs, he added. However, the opportunities are as great as the challenges, Fegan said. As a result of the Medicare program, 10 million people will be added to the pharmacy market, with 25% of households getting their prescriptions at supermarkets. Forty-six percent will choose one pharmacy for their drug needs without changing, according to a report by ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., cited by Fegan.

"So if you attract a segment of those 10 million people to your pharmacy, you have a great opportunity of getting about half of them to stay with you the whole time they are having prescriptions filled," he said.

Another presenter advised retailers to mark a Federal Trade Commission study on the mail-order practices of pharmacy benefit managers. The retail pharmacy industry initially wanted a prohibition on captive mail orders by PBMs for the Medicare benefit, but compromised on a FTC study with meaningful consequences, said Steve Champlin, vice president and treasurer, The Duberstein Group, Washington.

"This is a very cool thing," he said. "This is not what we really wanted, but it is not nothing."