Several supermarket pharmacists report their Y2K preparedness equals or surpasses that of the health care industry's current "ready" status.
As reported during a press conference on June 28, members of a pharmaceutical and medical coalition formed as part of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion said, "The pharmaceutical supply system is the most Y2K-prepared of anybody in the health care system." This was a U.S. Senate committee finding, said Mark Grayson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Washington, a coalition member.
Two other trade groups in the coalition, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Alexandria, Va., and the National Wholesale Druggists Association, Reston, Va., also participated in the phone-in media conference.
Industry officials cited a Food and Drug Administration survey that found 80% of a total 1,547 pharmaceutical companies questioned were Y2K ready as of June 28, with the remainder expected to be ready by October.
"We're ready," Barry Scher, spokesman, Giant Food Inc., Landover, Md., told SN. He said Giant has been working on the Y2K problem since April 1996. "We are taking all the necessary steps to ensure all our systems and hardware are Y2K-compliant, and we are 98% done with that part of the project."
"We were Y2K-compliant in the early spring," said John Fagen, vice president of pharmacy at Stop & Shop Cos., Quincy, Mass. "Our computers are fine, and they've been tested."
Pharmacy directors surveyed by SN last week agreed with the coalition's readiness proclamation.
"I think pharmacy traditionally has been somewhat ahead of the health industry as a whole," said Dave Ylitalo, pharmacy specialist at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va. "We're able to process claims more efficiently electronically. And that would lead us to being ahead of the game on the electronic side."
The other major focus of the coalition is how to prevent fear of prescription-drug shortages that could spur hoarding by consumers. In an attempt to forestall this, Phil Schneider, spokesman for the NACDS, urged supermarket pharmacists to counsel consumers on the industry's preparedness status.
"Supermarkets are a key element of the [pharmaceutical supply] system, with 15% of the total prescription volume," Schneider said. Pharmacists are just as important in those practice settings as pharmacists in any other practice setting in communicating to the patient that there's no need to be concerned -- the system is able to respond appropriately regardless of what may come up."
What specifically are supermarket pharmacies doing?
For starters, some have begun the process of consumer education. "Pharmacists have been assuring the public we'll have a supply necessary to handle needs and that there's no reason to order additional supplies," said Jim Cordes, pharmacy director at Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. Educating the consumer is the most challenging aspect of the preparing, he said, adding, "that's ultimately where this is all going to take place -- in the consumer arena. The more consumers are educated, the better off we'll be."
Said Giant's Scher, "We are developing a consumer brochure and considering the possibility of newspaper ads. Plus, we are sending out letters to area politicians to make them aware of our current situation. Elected officials have called, because their constituents have asked them."
The industry coalition has come to three major conclusions: 1) Pharmaceutical companies' information technology systems will be ready; 2) an average of 90 days worth of inventory exists within the supply chain; and 3) the biggest danger is patient hoarding of prescription drugs.
NWDA spokeswoman Sherry Haber said, "Once patients or others, begin to overbuy, then you've got a problem, because once it gets into medicine cabinets, it's no longer available in the supply system." Schneider added, "Urge patients to get prescriptions filled 5 to 7 days before the last dose. In following that, the system is going to be capable of meeting consumer demands."
While media hype can often trigger consumer anxiety, most in the industry believe that the media can be useful in the education process needed to squelch any panic buying. That is why the coalition, in an attempt to allay fears, has conducted a host of roundtables and press conferences.
"You're on two sides of the fence here," said Cordes. "If you distribute or disseminate more information, you may actually create an issue when there really isn't an issue. We surely don't want to do that."
In light of concerns, supermarket pharmacy retailers continue to be confident. "We are telling customers to follow what the American Red Cross is suggesting, and that is: If you are really worried, stock up as if there were an approaching snowstorm," said Scher.
Most pharmacy retailers said their warehouse and information systems departments have been the most helpful in making Y2K preparations. They also said associations like NACDS and the Food Marketing Institute have helped by "supporting initiatives to disseminate information and make consumers more aware of the real issues," in the words of Cordes.
Given all this confidence and assurance, what if things don't go smoothly?
"We have two warehouses," said Fagen."We are building a bit of inventory cushion." Many pharmaceutical manufacturers are planning to step up production just in case, according to the coalition speakers.
Cordes said, "when we have a forecast of 2 to 3 inches of snow here in the Midwest, it's like [people are] going to be locked up in their house for a week, and all the bread and milk in these stores is sold off the shelves. We may have a similar situation. Hopefully, it'll be insignificant."