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Pharmacist Shortage To Blame For Pharmacy Closings

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Pharmacies are popping up on busy street corners, and some corners have more than one. So getting prescriptions should be easy, but not always.

"It is a problem," said Dr. David Work, a spokesman for the North Carolina Board of Pharmacy.

On June 16, a Fayetteville Eckerd Drug Store in Fayetteville closed at 1 p.m. A few miles away, a CVS closed its pharmacy on Friday, June 17 and did not reopen until the following Monday.

Without notice, customers were turned away.

"I would not be happy if I couldn't get prescriptions filled until Monday, especially with little kids, if they were sick," said Amy Piraino, a parent. "I'd want the medicine right away."

Both companies blame a pharmacist shortage.

It is happening, not only in Fayetteville, but Charlotte, Asheville and small towns east of the Triangle.

"It was their management's decision to have the prescription department open from 8 a.m. to midnight," Work said. "And if they are going to make that kind of decision, they need to be able to cover it. If not, they need to make a more reasonable decision that the public can rely on."

Eleven years ago, North Carolina had 1,631 retail pharmacies. The number of stores dropped significantly to just a little over 1,400 by 2000. Since then, more than 134 stores were built, bringing the number back up.

The reason: aging baby boomers. Prescription volume has increased 50 percent over a 10-year period. Campbell University, one of only three pharmacy schools in the state, is expanding its pharmacy school to try to keep up with the pharmacist demand.

Last year, more than 1,600 people applied for 100 openings.

Dean Ronald Maddox sees different reasons for the shortage.

While starting salaries range in the six figures, 70 percent of his graduates are females. Many leave the workforce to have families. Other pharmacists go into research or sales. And then there are the demanding schedules.

Maddox said he knows firsthand.

"I worked 14 hours a day -- and long hours -- and then I started looking at where there are other opportunities," he said.

By law, a pharmacy cannot be open without a pharmacist behind the counter. That often means no bathroom or lunch breaks. They eat when they can.

Paul Ashworth has been a pharmacist for more than 20 years. He says there is such a need that he has been offered huge incentives by the chains to join the "mix."

"It can be a stressful environment, and I think that can catch students, graduates off-guard," Ashworth said.

As for the Eckerd in Fayetteville, a company spokesman said, "it was a unique situation and doesn't happen often"

CVS said the weekend shutdown was "inappropriate and unacceptable," and that it would not happen again.

In an effort to retain pharmacists, the State Board of Pharmacy is trying to regulate working conditions. It is caught up in the courts.


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