At the Corner of Criminal and Customer: Why Would Anyone Shop At Walgreens?

Health Tips / At the Corner of Criminal and Customer: Why Would Anyone Shop At Walgreens?

Sometimes when I hand a patient a prescription she’ll ask, “Where should I get this filled?” “Pretty much anywhere except Walgreens,” I answer, “unless you actually enjoy long waits and, if you’re taking a pain med, getting a humiliating third-degree runaround from the pharmacist. Me? I wouldn’t buy a toothpick from the place.”

I usually get a surprised look in response.

“It’s not just about prices,” I continue. “In fact, a recent survey of prescription prices conducted by Consumer Reports showed that CVS is pricier than Walgreen’s. It’s the unmitigated corporate cynicism of Walgreens that gets my goat. Don’t get me started…”

But now you’ve got me started.

Walgreens and Switzerland

I’m sure you heard about the Walgreens plan to move to Switzerland to save some serious big money on corporate taxes. You may also have read that last month they officially changed their minds.

If you didn’t know the precise number they were planning to save on taxes, it was just about $4 billion over the next five years. Of course, being a US-based company, with Americans being its primary customers, that $4 billion would have been your money in the pipe on its way to Swiss banks. The cash would have then been divvied up among Walgreens shareholders and  executives, which makes me wonder how much more than an annual salary of $13.7 million CEO Greg Wasson could actually want.

As this piece lays out, $4 billion in lost taxes could fund:

  • All the prescriptions filled by all patients enrolled in the VA for the next 1½ years.
  • Health insurance for 639,000 Medicaid recipients.
  • Health insurance for 3.5 million children in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

But fearing “consumer backlash,” which might have hurt corporate profits (and his annual bonus), CEO Wasson had a change of mind, though I’m sure not a change of heart. Did you notice Wasson saying anything about $4 billion to Switzerland being “morally wrong”? That’s because, despite the Supreme Court decision to the contrary, corporations are not actually people with a sense of right and wrong. Corporate decisions are based on profit, period.

Which brings us to tobacco

Every time I hear the jingle or see a sign with the Walgreens motto “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy,” I visibly cringe. Talk about corporate cynicism.

Several months ago, a couple dozen US attorneys general sent letters to the CEOs of America’s biggest retailers urging them to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products. Although most of you smokers pick up your Marlboros at convenience stores and gas stations, 15% of cigarettes are sold through the drug and grocery chains. CVS responded rather quickly and next month will quit selling cigarettes. Other chains, like Safeway, Kroger, and Walmart, are in the “considering” stage.

Walgreen’s simply declined to comment.

And this year, almost 500,000 Americans will die from smoking-related illness. “Happy and healthy,” my a–!

Treating the customer as criminal

In 2013, Walgreens badly botched its controlled-drug inventory system in Florida. They were socked with an $80 million fine over federal charges that their ability to control the sales of narcotics at some stores was a failure. From that point forward, the company took a self-righteous stance, treating customers like drug dealers and doctors like suppliers.

I wrote an earlier Health Tip about a fax sent by Walgreens to primary care physicians informing them that pharmacists might be calling to discuss exactly why a pain med had been prescribed, how long the patient would be using it, and (get this) asking if we doctors were running urine drug tests on our patients to make certain the medication was being taken correctly and not shared with others. Here’s a copy of the fax they sent.

Physician groups immediately began opposing this as an intrusion into their privacy (which it is, but it’s also seriously insulting to our patients). From my own point of view, I think the opposition is having an effect. I’ve been receiving fewer calls from Walgreens pharmacists than I did several months ago.

However, you as a patient are certainly not of out of the woods. You’re guilty until you can clear yourself. To your Walgreens pharmacist, if you’re a patient in pain and you hand over a pain med prescription, you’re immediately regarded as sleaze. You might find the pharmacist handing back your prescription with a “We don’t have it in stock–call around, try another store.” What they really want is for you to take your pain prescription to a competitor.

Why? You’re too much work for them. Take a look at this secret checklist, recently sent to every Walgreens pharmacist. BTW, it was not for public viewing, but likely placed online by a disgruntled pharmacist or pharmacy tech.

I’ve linked to this intense clip from the film “Magnolia” in a previous Health Tip. If you’re prepared for a shock, here’s Julianne Moore, picking up the pain med prescriptions for her dying husband. This could easily be the consequence of the Walgreens secret checklist.

Where should you get your prescription filled?

Much depends on the drug benefits of your health insurance.

  1. If you have excellent, no-hassle coverage, I suggest you find a small independent pharmacy in your neighborhood or town. It’s definitely pleasant to be recognized when you walk into the store, or to be asked by the pharmacist when you phone how you’re getting along. The big retail pharmacies are essentially huge Family Dollar/White Hen Pantries with a pharmacy tucked in the back. You may have discovered how they fill your prescriptions s-l-o-w-l-y because they want you to shop around while you wait.
  2. If you don’t have great coverage and you have a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, use Costco (membership not required), Walmart, Sam’s Club, or Kmart. The generic prices from these retailers are excellent.
  3. You can save serious money using the online mail-order pharmacy Health Warehouse or you can print a coupon from GoodRx and use it anywhere.
  4. It’s less expensive not using insurance for many generic drugs, a fact that often surprises people. For example, three months of generic Norvasc (a blood pressure med) costs less than $10 at Health Warehouse. Plus after ten weeks they’ll send you an email reminder to order your next three-month supply. No trip to a drugstore, no waiting in line, and best of all no co-pay.
  5. If you know you feel better on a brand-name drug but your insurance refuses to pay for it, have your prescription filled by mail at a Canadian pharmacy like Universal Drugstore. Prices are excellent and the professional staffers are “Canada-friendly.”

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD