SCHENECTADY — The last independent drug store in Schenectady abruptly shut down Thursday.
The owners of Aumiller’s Pharmacy, a more-than-100-year-old landmark in the Central State Street neighborhood, said they were unable to continue in a trade that has come to be dominated by national chains and supermarket-based competitors. They sold Aumiller’s prescription files to Walgreen’s; terms of the deal precluded them from notifying customers before the switchover took effect.
So on Thursday, the plate glass windows in the drug store at State and Robinson streets were obscured with sheets of heavy brown paper. Signs direct customers to the Walgreens at the corner of Eastern Avenue and McClellan Street, 1.2 miles away.
The business began in 1914 as Dyer’s Pharmacy and took its present name in 1947, when Henry Aumiller bought it. Aumiller’s widow sold the business in December 2015 to three pharmacists working there: Tom Bolton, Frank Falvo and Gina Sidoti.
The trio told The Daily Gazette in early 2016 that they were excited to retain the name of the longtime previous owner and to maintain the profile he had built in the community.
Their attorney, Bryan Goldberger, on Thursday said the trio had a love for the business and community but faced a regulatory environment that made them lose money.
“Since they took over, the volume of prescriptions has been increasing and they were losing more money,” he said.
“Everybody at the pharmacy, their goal was to carry on the legacy. They enjoyed the relationship [with customers]. It became impossible to continue. They were forced to make a very difficult decision.”
The three pharmacists are at various stages in their careers. None plans to retire, Goldberger said, but they’re still evaluating what to do next.
The industry trends that sank Aumiller’s are squeezing small pharmacies nationwide, he said. Legislative efforts afoot at the state and national levels may bring relief, he added, but it will be too late for Aumiller’s.
The little corner pharmacy follows a long list of Schenectady drug stores that went out of business in a fairly short stretch of the late 20th century, including Avenue A Pharmacy, Behan’s, Canes, Honeyland, Joseph’s, Mc Lane’s, Myers, Pintaville, Rock Garden, Sacks, Woodlawn.
ONE LEFT IN COUNTY
Not counting in-house pharmacies at Ellis Medicine and Hometown Health, there is just one independent left in Schenectady County: Lange’s Pharmacy, which was founded in 1936 in downtown Schenectady and has been on Nott Street in Niskayuna since 1963.
The founder’s grandsons Dan and Dave run it now with Dan’s wife, Angel. All three are pharmacists.
“It’s tough. We have 10 chain pharmacies within two miles of us,” Dan Lange said Thursday. “It’s the PBMs. Thank you, Cuomo, for vetoing the PBM bill.”
He referred to 2019 state legislation that would have regulated pharmacy benefit managers, the massive operations that manage prescription drug benefits for most Americans. PBMs play an important role in slowing down the rapid rise of drug costs, and one of the ways they do that is by squeezing retailers. A small independent businessman is less able to fight back, or to absorb the blow, than a multibillion-dollar corporation.
“PBMs take back money if I don’t meet certain parameters,” Lange said. “If you don’t take your statin every month, I get dinged for that, even though I don’t write the prescription and I can’t make you take the pills. Even if you’re perfect they’ll take back 3 percent, on something you may not [make] 3 percent on.”
Lange’s survives by being a part of the community — it’s only eight feet from the front door to the counter in the tiny store — and by doing things other pharmacies aren’t doing anymore, such as delivery, creating compounded drugs and creating compliance packaging for patients who are forgetful or who have a large and complicated regimen of drugs.
Also, Lange’s has become part of the Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network, working with local healthcare providers such as Ellis and Hometown Health in team-based care for high-needs patients.
“As every little independent has closed, we have picked up a percentage of their needy customers,” Lange said.
Countering these strengths is a regulatory structure that’s just as problematic for Lange’s as it was for Aumiller’s.
A pharmacy is forbidden to deny a sale to Medicaid customers who can’t make their copayment, for example. Lots of Medicaid recipients know this and simply won’t make their copayment, Lange said. So he has to eat that loss.
His tiny store also doesn’t have the synergies of a corporate chain. A large drug store typically has a huge inventory of snacks, drinks, magazines, beauty supplies and other things that have nothing to do with medicine, and it makes a lot of money from their sale.
CVS, the nation's largest pharmacy chain, reported $256 billion in revenue in 2019. Of the $85.8 billion in retail revenue, $19.4 billion was front-of-store sales, $66.4 million in pharmacy sales.
A much larger source of revenue in 2019 for CVS — $141.5 billion — came from its PBM services.
“The days of just getting paid to fill prescriptions are over,” Lange said. “It’s services.”