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North Dakota has an interesting law that was passed in 1963 requiring pharmacies to be majority owned by a licensed pharmacist. This keeps Walmart, CVS and Walgreens out of the state (with a couple of minor exceptions grandfathered in). Naturally, Walmart is leading an effort to get it repealed. I called the Velva Drug Co. in Velva, North Dakota, to get some insight into the law and its effects on the independently owned business. Bonnie Thone, co-owner with her daughter (also a licensed pharmacist), chatted with me about it.

“I think it’s a question of ‘how much is there to go around?’” Thone said. “I have Target, Walmart and K-mart all within 22 miles of me, and for them it’s a loss leader. For me, it’s my primary business.”

Nine and half years ago, she and her daughter became the fourth owners of Velva Drug Co. since 1902. “It’s our hometown store, and we had the opportunity to buy it.” I could hear Thone smiling through the phone. “I love it.” Because of this state-enforced protection, North Dakota has more pharmacies in rural areas and some of the country’s lowest prescription drug prices.

This made me curious about owning an independent pharmacy in Wilmington, so I contacted Edwin Link of Market Street Pharmacy, which has served three generations of Rohlers. The staff’s patience with my grandparents’ medical needs is legendary in our family.

encore: What advantages do independent pharmacies offer consumers?
Edwin Link:
I think the ability to provide more personal service than most chain stores is the biggest one. We try to know our customers by name, and in turn our customers know us and know we are going to be here when they call.  We can take the time to answer questions and offer advice on how to use their medications most effectively. We are also competitive, so customers don’t have to pay more for the better service—and they don’t have to wait!

While we are not a big store, we can usually order anything special and have it the next day. We also have started offering flu shots this year, no appointment necessary. We can compound certain medications and work with veterinarians for special medications for pets.

e: What impact has the growth of chain pharmacies had on your business?
EL:
Certainly any time another pharmacy opens near us, it can affect our business. But the fact is, we can compete with any chain. I have found that if someone leaves us because they were enticed by an offer from a new store, they generally make their way back to get our service.

e: What impact has Walmart’s $4 pill program had on your business?
EL
: There has certainly been a lot of publicity around this program, and it hasn’t all been good. There is a misconception that all generic medications are available for $4, but that is not the case. It can be a bait-and-switch scenario.

Our biggest competition these days is the insurance companies. They have the ability to lower reimbursements, and recently have started pushing mail-order pharmacy, which is a no-win situation for everyone. It actually can be a conflict of interest in cases where the insurance company actually owns the mail-order company.

e: Tell us about your philosophy of customer service.
EL:
We are dedicated to personal and focused patient care. We appreciate the trust a patient puts in us, and we in turn want to make sure we keep that trust by providing the best possible service we can.

e: Please share with us your opinion of the North Dakota laws.
EL:
I just recently heard about this and was surprised that this was still true. North Dakota certainly has a much different situation with their sparse population. While I think the idea certainly has its merits, I don’t think it could ever happen here. I personally do not have a problem with an owner of a pharmacy not being a pharmacist, as long as the laws and regulations are adhered to.

e: North Dakota has more rural locations of pharmacies and lower prescription prices as benefits of protecting independently owned pharmacies. Do you see a correlation?
EL:
I can see the correlation that the big chains can’t come in and run the small independents out of business. I think that good competition keeps prescription prices fair.

e: What would you like encore readers to know about pharmacies and an independent pharmacy in particular?
EL:
I would like to remind everyone what the pharmacy community was like in Wilmington 15 years ago. Most of the independent pharmacies are gone. You may remember Toms Drug on Front Street, Hall’s Drugstore on 5th and Castle, Carter’s Pharmacy on Princess Place, just to name a few. Many of you may remember going with your parents or grandparents to the local pharmacy. This is a great example of how when you lose an independent business, you lose jobs and revenue in the community. When you buy locally from a small business, you actually put more of your buying dollar directly back into the community as opposed to sending it to the chain store’s corporate office. Give your local independent pharmacy a try; I think you will like the experience. There are only a few of us left!

Gwenyfar Rohler is the author of “The Promise of Peanuts: A real life fairy tale about a man, a village, and the promise that bound them together.” Available at www.OldBooksonFrontSt.com, and all profits go to Full Belly Project (www.fullbellyproject.org).

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