Virtual NACDS Regional brings focus to pharmacy's 2020 victories, future opportunities

Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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The National Association of Chain Drug Stores’ virtual Regional Chain Conference kicked off Monday with a discussion from the organization’s top leaders about the role regional chains have played in the nation’s response to COVID-19. As the pandemic has elevated pharmacies’ role in patient care to new heights, speakers expressed a desire for pharmacies to remain empowered even after the pandemic subsides.

Craig Norman, senior vice president of pharmacy at H-E-B and NACDS’ 2021 Regional Chain Chair noted that while early retailer efforts were around making shopping safer for consumers — building out delivery and other convenience/safety offerings — these coincided with a slowdown in immunizations and immunization programs. But a slow spring and summer gave way to a busy flu shot season, offering pharmacy a chance to shine.

“This year was fantastic. Over 51 million flu shots were administered in pharmacies this year, which is 41% growth over the previous year,” Norman said. “We’ve shown what community pharmacy can do in time of need. We are the most accessible healthcare providers.” This status has only grown as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has begun nationwide. Though supply issues have hampered vaccination efforts, the launch of the Biden administration’s federal pharmacy partnership offers hope.

“Unfortunately we’ve received small allocations from the state of Texas,” Norman said, noting that H-E-B has administered more than 80,000 doses of the vaccine across first and second doses. “We’re optimistic this week that will change as the Federal Pharmacy Partnership starts ramping up and we’re able to access the vaccine.”

What is critical, he said, is that regional retail pharmacy operators make pharmacy’s strengths in the healthcare system clear to policymakers by continuing to offer exceptional care.

“At a minimum, we should work to make sure we make permanent all the things we’ve been granted to do during COVID,” he said. “As we get into the rest of the year, we have to remember, we are the face of neighborhood healthcare. Look at your companies, what can you do differently to make the profession of pharmacy more visible and have more meaning to our customers and employees?”

As NACDS president and CEO Steve Anderson put it, “Our regionals have given hope to the American people as they experience uncertainty, fear and anxiety during this public health crisis.” Amid a year filled with uncertainty, Anderson noted that NACDS’ member response was a consistent bright point — and that the country is taking notice, particularly among policymakers.

“Everything you’ve done and as your administered vaccines, the country is seeing it as well,” he said. “By telling that story lawmakers and regulators will recognize the value of pharmacy so you can do even more with the American people," Anderson said.

Rick Keyes, president and CEO of Meijer and NACDS chair noted that regional chains played a crucial role in testing, administering flu shots and working with long-term care facilities to vaccinate residents and staff against COVID-19. He said that as an organization NACDS continued to focus on such issues as DIR fee reform, reimbursement issues and scope-of-practice opportunities — many of which manifested themselves in 2020 and pave the way for further policy victories in the future.

“When I think about 2020, whether it’s with industry associations or state and local government, the power we have to shape policy is incredible,” he said. “Alliances are critically important. This is an inflection point, a critical juncture for our industry.”