Pharmacists Say New State Law Is Good Medicine

January 9, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Brooklyn Legislators Praise New Law

By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BAY RIDGE — Habib Joudeh has had to reduce the number of hours his employees work in the pharmacy he owns. He was forced to make the drastic decision, he said, because the drugstore wasn’t doing the business it used to. Joudeh said the financial problems could be directly tied to unfair competition.

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The problem, according to Joudeh, owner of Pharmacy on Fifth Inc., is that over the past five or six years, increasing numbers of health insurance companies have been mandating that their clients fill their prescriptions by mail order only. If a member wanted to get pills for high blood pressure or allergies, he or she had to mail away for the medications and then wait for the drugs to be delivered. Under this system, the mail carrier became as important to the patient as the doctor.

It also meant that clients were prohibited from getting their pills and other medications from their friendly neighborhood drugstores, like Pharmacy on Fifth.

And that meant a significant loss of business for Joudeh and his fellow pharmacists. “It’s not laying off people, but we had to cut people’s hours,” Joudeh said.

Steve Cilento, owner of Bridge Pharmacy on Third Avenue, said he saw a significant drop in the number of prescriptions he filled because of the strong-arm tactics of the insurance companies. “I lost about 50 presciptions a day,” he said.

There is good news for Joudeh, Cilento, and the owners of other mom-and-pop drugstores in Bay Ridge and elsewhere, according to local lawmakers.

Thanks to a new state law, insurance companies are no longer allowed to mandate that their clients fill their presciptions by mail order only. The bill, recently signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, goes into effect on Jan. 12.

On Friday, two of the bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Martin Golden and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, held a press conference on the sidewalk outside Pharmacy on Fifth to raise public awareness about the new law. Local pharmacists joined them at the press conference.

The new law will help level the playing field, according to Golden, who said it would allow small pharmacies to compete for business with mail-order companies.

“It’s about allowing us to be competitive,” he said.

Pharmacies in New York State lost $5.9 billion in revenue in 2009 because they were unable to compete, he said.

The loss of business forced pharmacists across the state to lay off 18,000 workers in 2009, Malliotakis said.

And things got worse, she added.

“Pharmacies were forced to close,” she said.

Insurance companies imposed the mail-order mandate as a cost-cutting measure, according to Golden.

The mail-order mandate affected the local economy, Golden and Malliotakis said.

“It’s important we recognize the small businesses in our community. Each one of these pharmacies hires five, six, seven people,” Golden said. “We want them to be able to make money. We want them to stay here,” said the senator, who added that he gets his prescriptions filled at local drugstores.

“We all love our neighborhood pharmacies,” Malliotakis said. “They provide in-house consultation and jobs for our community residents.”

The in-house consultation with a local pharmacist, in which a customer can talk to the drugist face-to-face and ask questions about dosages and expiration dates of medications, is vital to a patient’s well-being, according to the drugstore owners at the press conference.

That was missing when customers had to rely on mail-order medications, the pharmacists said. “It’s not just a financial cost, but a human cost,” said Peter Lau, owner of Globe Pharmacy on 86th Street. “Heath care is not a privilege. Health care is a right.”

“With no counseling for the patient, the patient doesn’t know what to do,” Joudeh said. Ironically, former customers who had switched to mail-order prescriptions were still coming to pharmacists like Lau for help translating the often confusing written instructions that came with their medications.

“I can’t turn them down. You look at this from a human level,” Lau said.

Cilento said one of the things that pleased him most about the new law is that “we’re allowed to help people who need us.”

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