After 40 years of experience, Good Neighbor Pharmacy is ready to tackle whatever challenges lie ahead for independent pharmacies.
When AmerisourceBergen established Good Neighbor Pharmacy in the 1980s as a franchise program for independently owned pharmacies, the primary focus of community pharmacy was dispensing medications. Although some pharmacies specialized in home health care needs, such as durable medical equipment, others in the space focused purely on retail.
“Especially in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, chain [pharmacies] weren’t as prevalent,” Brian Nightengale, president of community and specialty pharmacy and long-term care at AmerisourceBergen, told Drug Topics®.“The independents were the main thing you saw in terms of pharmacies; chains were more regional and smaller—certainly not the large national presence they have now.”
As the role and influence of chain pharmacies began to evolve, Nightengale explained, the impetus for Good Neighbor Pharmacy, or GNP, was born.
“When it was founded in the early 80s, it was to create a national brand [with] national support to compete with the expansion of the chains,” he said. “As we got into the mid- to late 90s, the substantial growth in chains and the rapid expansion was part of the growth of Good Neighbor Pharmacy.”
Over the past 2.5 decades, Nightengale has had a front row seat to the growth and expansion of Good Neighbor Pharmacy, formerly serving as the president of the Good Neighbor Pharmacy Network. However, despite the changes across the industry—ranging from drug coverage and reimbursement models in the early 2000s to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020—the Good Neighbor Pharmacy mission has stayed true.
“We’ve remained consistent in our mission over the past 40 years to rally together independent pharmacies, to support them in driving care and services in their communities that are much needed, and to give them a more powerful voice and presence in the industry,” he said. Although the Good Neighbor Pharmacy services have evolved over time, “our sense of purpose in supporting and using our scale, scope, and expertise…has not changed,” Nightengale said.
Jenni Zilka, the current president of Good Neighbor Pharmacy, agreed.
“It’s such a journey we’ve been on with our pharmacy owners and, as importantly, with their patients,” she said. “Our initial focus when we started Good Neighbor Pharmacy was on buying power [and] brand awareness. The goal was to feel more like a chain for our independent pharmacies—focused on signage, rugs, striping, and the Good Neighbor Pharmacy brand. As consumer and patient needs and requirements have shifted, our pharmacies have continued to evolve with those changing needs.”
In 2008, Zilka began building the AmerisourceBergen business coaching program, an initiative that focused on helping independent pharmacy members grow and optimize their businesses. When the program kicked off, Zilka explained, it was run by a team of 2. Today, there are nearly 40 coaches working with Good Neighbor Pharmacies across the country.
Part of that work has involved maintaining a line of sight into pharmacists’ continually evolving needs. Even a decade ago, a pharmacy owner wouldn’t have needed to concern themselves with digital advertising or social media marketing. “[Today], we’re focused on so much more,” Zilka said. That “more” includes assisting pharmacy owners with the digital transformation necessary to thrive in today’s business environment. Good Neighbor Pharmacy supports owners with digital marketing through Facebook and Google, the latter of which was just expanded to include Google Shopping Ads, which will enable pharmacies to attract more front-end shoppers by making pharmacy inventory available to the community when they search for products near them. GNP also provides front-end support, which since January 2020, has included addressing the disruption and challenges faced by every member of the health care industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is my favorite topic right now, because our independent pharmacy owners are really, truly heroes in terms of how they stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Zilka said. “Not only from having to shift their business model from walk-ins to drive thru, curbside service, or even delivery, [but] they also organized food drives, grocery delivery, and so many things within their communities to help.”
And, she added, “We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about their vaccine efforts and the important role they played throughout the vaccine process. They had to evolve on the fly.” Good Neighbor Pharmacy worked quickly to establish a federal network partnership with the CDC on behalf of independent pharmacies, providing stores with much-needed vaccines for their communities. In early April 2022, Good Neighbor Pharmacy officially surpassed 5 million vaccine doses1 sent to participating independent pharmacy members.
In part, this success was fueled by tireless advocacy work from the larger Good Neighbor Pharmacy team. “A lot of the focus in advocacy [up until the COVID-19 pandemic] was at the federal level,” Nightengale explained. “We started out needing to educate federal regulators and legislators in Congress about the pharmacy business model, the value of community pharmacy, and [about] some of the challenges that, quite frankly, laws and regulations were creating, preventing pharmacists and pharmacies from providing the level of care that they can.”
One such example, Nightengale noted, is the work Good Neighbor Pharmacy and AmerisourceBergen has done to address direct and indirect remuneration (DIR) fees. Nightengale recalls spending up to 2.5 years trying to educate members of Congress and their staff on what DIR fees were, what they stood for, and what exactly it represented in the larger Medicare ecosystem. Once accomplished, that work was able to shift toward addressing more specific issues, including “the problems [DIR fees] cause, how it increases patient out-of-pocket costs, and specific legislation that’s required for reform,” Nightengale said.
“That’s just 1 example of the evolution of education into real recommendations and action,” he said. “One of the biggest results of that is finally, we have legislation that has a real chance of moving forward to radically transform DIR fees.”2
But despite all that Zilka, Nightengale, and Good Neighbor Pharmacy have accomplished, the work is far from done. The pharmacy landscape is constantly in motion, and even more changes are on the horizon.
“As I think about our pharmacies and how they’ve evolved over the past 40 years, there’s so much to be proud of,” said Zilka, “but we also still have so much work to do. Most importantly, we [must] continue to advocate and evolve the model of pharmacy as a recognized and meaningful extension of the overall health care system and as an essential access point for those who need the most care.”
Nightengale agreed, expressing his hopes that the very public response by independent pharmacies to the COVID-19 pandemic can create an opportunity for the profession. “My hope is that through this advocacy momentum we have through increased awareness, people all across this country recognize the value of pharmacy and the abilities pharmacies have to provide care for [patients] and their families, and that they [can] benefit from the incredible accessibility, expertise, and personalized care the community pharmacies and their staff provide.”
Looking forward to next year, Zilka anticipates Good Neighbor Pharmacy will “double down on the advocacy. We’re truly at an inflection point as a profession,” she explained, “and I think we [must] continue to share the important story of the role pharmacies played throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the important role they can play going forward.” The organization will also be investing in future independent pharmacy owners by increasing access to education through a new scholarship program funded in partnership between Good Neighbor Pharmacy and the AmerisourceBergen Foundation. The Good Neighbor Pharmacy Scholarship Program will support Black and African American students pursuing a Doctor of Pharmacy degree at a historically Black college or university. This scholarship highlights the rewarding career of community pharmacy and underscores the importance of diverse representation in the pharmacy industry.
“It’s really easy to get up every morning and champion [our] independent pharmacy owners,” Zilka said. “Their resilience is second to none, [and] the care they provide to their patients and communities is phenomenal. We’ve been able to help them grow and evolve as the industry and patient needs evolve around them…leading us toward the ability to increase access, equity, and the services they’re able to provide patients.”
Learn more about Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s 40th anniversary here.