Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s 2021 State of the Union

AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy (GNP) kicked off ThoughtSpot 2021, GNP’s annual conference and trade show.

AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy (GNP) today kicked off ThoughtSpot 2021, GNP’s annual conference and trade show. This annual show represents AmerisourceBergen and GNP’s commitment to supporting independent pharmacies as community healthcare destinations.

In an interview with Drug Topics®, Rich Tremonte, president of customer operations, animal health, and community & specialty pharmacy (CSP), and Brian Nightengale, PhD, RPh, president of GNP discussed insights and lessons from the past year, which proved to be one of the most tumultuous and influential for independent community pharmacy.

ThoughtSpot 2021 was held virtually again this year to support pharmacists and their customers. “This is not the time we want to take [pharmacists] out of their community,” Tremonte said, citing low vaccination rates in regions of the country where independent community pharmacists are positioned to address these challenges. “If they can be in their community vaccinating, that’s where we want them.”

Independents As Health Care Leaders in their Communities

“Independents have always gone above and beyond to provide their uniquely personal local experience,” Nightengale said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different. The trials brought on by the pandemic demonstrated the tireless dedication independent pharmacies bring to their communities. From closing their doors to keep their staff and customers safe to providing COVID-19 vaccines, independents fearlessly met pandemic challenges with their signature customer loyalty. “They completely changed and modified to meet their community’s specific needs, just like they’ve always done,” said Nightengale.

One silver lining of the pandemic has been the public and government recognition of independents’ ability and willingness to support the unique needs of their patients and alleviate pressure on health systems. Not only that, but independent pharmacies were also acknowledged for being accessible health care hubs, especially for vulnerable populations. The national COVID-19 vaccination effort helped bring this fact to light.

“One of the key things with the vaccination program was a focus on making sure that underserved communities, socially disadvantaged communities, and people had access to the vaccines,” Nightengale said. Indeed, data from GNP revealed that close to 50% of individuals vaccinated by GNP network pharmacies lived in zip codes with a high Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). “The federal government response really focused on getting the vaccine to those vulnerable communities. They reached out to independents, and they delivered,” he said.

Pharmacy’s demonstrated ability to carry out the national COVID-19 response, as well as their agility in navigating unpredictable changes, caught the public eye. Now, it’s critical for independents to hold that attention and capitalize on it, according to Tremonte. “Pharmacists have a platform, and we want to use that platform more than we ever have in the past. And I feel like it’s been set up for us to advocate more than ever before,” he said.

Independents Can Depend on AmerisourceBergen and GNP

AmerisourceBergen has long been an advocate for independent pharmacies, and its commitment to these cornerstones of the community has only increased since COVID-19.

From providing access to COVID-19 tests to securing reimbursement, AmerisourceBergen has offered unwavering support to independents amid the pandemic. In February, the company became a network administrator for the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 vaccination, collaborating with state and federal governments and national pharmacy partners to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines. “By May, we expanded to over one thousand pharmacies across 46 states,” Tremonte said. AmerisourceBergen was also the sole distributor of many COVID-19 therapies that the FDA authorized before the vaccination effort. “We worked with the federal government very closely, again on allocation, but also making sure the product was getting to the right place at the right time,” Tremonte said. At the close of reporting, Good Neighbor Pharmacy and AmerisourceBergen have allocated nearly 1.8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to nearly 1,554 pharmacies across the country since the program began.

Nightengale explained that the CDC and Operation Warp Speed didn’t initially plan on including independent community pharmacies in the COVID-19 vaccination effort, as they prepared to reach out only to pharmacies with at least 200 stores. AmerisourceBergen and GNP were instrumental in demonstrating the value of independent pharmacies in reaching vulnerable demographics and boosting vaccination rates. By functioning as a single administrator for thousands of independent pharmacies and an access point to the CDC, AmerisourceBergen and GNP could include independent community pharmacies in COVID-19 vaccinations. “Because of that, and the efforts of other peers in the industry, the independent community pharmacy had access and could be part of that federal response,” Nightengale said. “We were very proud of that.”

But GNP’s work didn’t end there. “We had to invest a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy, and money to enable all that,” Nightengale said. AmerisourceBergen and GNP provided pharmacist training at test stations and implemented vaccine ordering systems and reporting and data capabilities that kept in line with CDC requirements. “It was truly an investment we made in our pharmacies to be able to do what they do best, and that is care for their communities in a unique way.”

What’s Next for Independent Pharmacies?

Tremonte and Nightengale agree that now is the time to fight for provider status and boost clinical services. GNP can help them get there, Tremonte asserted. “There’s no reason that pharmacists shouldn’t be granted provider status under Medicare in all 50 states,” he said. “I think this is one of those areas that Good Neighbor Pharmacy can continue to see the needs of pharmacies going forward and…promote them.” According to Tremonte, provider status is key to keeping independent pharmacies viable and transforming pharmacy practice overall.

Nightengale also pointed to reimbursement, which continues to be a prevalent challenge for independents. “The reimbursement landscape is really tough. And so, it’s imperative that we do everything we can to keep those pharmacies open,” he said. AmerisourceBergen’s Elevate Provider Network works to ensure their members receive optimal reimbursement, in addition to offering business coaching and data analytics to help support and grow operations. However, comprehensive reimbursement reform is top of mind for GNP. “We’re taking a strong leadership position in the industry…to advocate for comprehensive reimbursement reform as well as expanded scope of practice,” Nightengale said.

Helping member pharmacies attract and retain new customers is another goal for GNP. For example, GNP’s digital marketing platform monitors new patients and traffic through the mobile app. “These patients that came in to get their vaccine [who] had never been in that pharmacy before, to have them experience all that independents have to offer, that’s our goal,” Nightengale said.

As medication dispensing becomes more commoditized with the surge of mail orders and online pharmacies, the traditional pharmacy business model is becoming a challenge. Independent pharmacies need to consider diversified patient services such offering clinical services. But although pharmacy’s typical bread and butter of dispensing may be shifting, the fact remains that customers want a personal connection with a trusted health care provider. “We’ve done market research on this, as have others, and people still want the personal relationship. And so, I think it’s key that independent pharmacies embrace this opportunity,” Nightengale said.

Tremonte and Nightengale stress that the time is now for independents to use the increased visibility from the COVID-19 pandemic as a springboard for reaching these goals. Additionally, legislation at the state level, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling on Rutledge v. PCMA, has helped gain momentum for pharmacy reform. “We’ve got a short window of what I would call the ‘halo effect,’ where community pharmacy has gained a lot of awareness as a health care provider, as the highly accessible, trusted site of care, because of the vaccination initiative,” Nightengale said.

“It’s a critical time now because I think all the stars are aligned where we’ve got traction. I think we’ve demonstrated pharmacy’s ability to do more, and now it’s time to make it happen.”

This article was written in partnership with AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy.