Pharmacy crisis

Customers lined up at the Safeway pharmacy on Thursday, Nov. 4.

Amid the bustle of shoppers, one group of customers stood still, their patience waning, Thursday morning, Nov. 4 at the Safeway store in Baker City.

The members of this group were waiting for their turn at the pharmacy.

Some near the front of the line said they had been waiting for more than an hour.

Similar lines have formed at times leading to the three pharmacies in Baker City, in the Safeway, Albertsons and Rite Aid stores.

The closure of the pharmacy in the Bi Mart store slated for Nov. 9, combined with staffing shortages in the remaining pharmacies, has created a situation that’s frustrating for customers and employees alike.

Paul Musser, one of those waiting in line at Rite Aid on Thursday morning, said he transferred his prescriptions from Bi Mart to Rite Aid. Musser was upset as he waited with about 15 other customers.

“My prescription was called in on Monday to here,” he said. “Today the line is short. Yesterday it was all the way down and around. It’s all because of Bi Mart and Kate Brown.”

Musser was referring to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who in August announced an executive order requiring most health care workers, including pharmacy employees, to be vaccinated or to receive a medical or religious exception by Oct. 18.

It’s not clear how much the vaccination mandate has contributed to staffing shortages at local pharmacies. The Herald has not received responses to its requests for comment from the company that owns both Safeway and Albertsons stores, or from Rite Aid.

Donna Coble, who was waiting at Rite Aid Thursday, said she has used the store’s pharmacy for years. She’s been waiting more than a week for her prescriptions.

“I think we’re going to be hurting for a good pharmacy,” Coble said.

At Safeway, Ruth Willitts stood in line waiting to fill a prescription for her son. She said this was her first experience waiting in line at the pharmacy.

Willitts said she has transferred her own prescriptions from Bi Mart to Albertsons.

“We were at Bi Mart but we went to Albertsons,” Willitts said. “I have not been over there to pick up anything so I don’t know if it’s just the same situation as here. But this is quite an experience. We’re just not used to it.”

Janet Van Diepen, who was waiting in the line at Safeway, contends poor management is one of the reasons for the longer waits.

“Obviously, they’re completely overwhelmed,” she said. “They don’t have enough staff to even open the drive-thru which seems like they should pull some from some other part of the store maybe to get at least the drive thru open so then we don’t have a line,” said VanDiepen.

She said she had been waiting for an hour and it was the second time she was in that predicament this week.

“I called in the day before to get all my prescriptions filled so I would only have to do this once, got up there and they hadn’t even filled them yet,” she said. “So I had to come back again, stand in line again. I don’t know what they can do.”

“It’s frustrating because no matter when you come, day or night, they’re always behind,” said Tami Carpenter, who was also in line at Safeway.

Carpenter said she had called from her home in Halfway to see if her prescriptions were ready, and although she was told to expect to wait 20 minutes, the prescriptions were still not filled.

“I feel for them; they’re short staffed, nobody wants to work, but poor management. Definitely poor management,” Carpenter said.

Van Diepen noted that although Bi Mart has been transferring prescriptions from its Baker City store — which had processed about 1,500 prescriptions per week — it’s not actually closed yet.

“So what’s this going to be when they close and all of their stuff comes into the three places that are left?” Van Diepen said. “It’s bordering on a crisis, definitely.”

Back on the other side of Campbell Street, at the Albertsons store, Jan O’Grady waited in a much shorter line. She transferred her prescriptions from Bi Mart.

O’Grady said she’s angry about the deal between Walgreens and Bi Mart in which the former company bought Bi Mart’s pharmacy business, but which is resulting in 56 Bi Mart pharmacies to close.

“I will never use Walgreens no matter what,” O’Grady said. “It’s one thing in big towns where there is a Walgreens but I really don’t foresee them opening a Walgreens here in the next six months. So, they’ve kind of screwed us out of Bi Mart and Bi Mart has always been really wonderful.”

Jason Yencopal, Baker County’s emergency management director, has been talking with state officials about the possibility of getting temporary workers to help with the pharmacy situation.

There were no specific plans as of Friday, Nov. 5.

Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, said on Friday morning that the pharmacy situation “is a crisis.”

The staffing shortage is affecting the pharmacies’ ability to give vaccinations, both for COVID-19 and for the flu, Staten said.

That has led some people to seek help from the Health Department, which also administers vaccines but has limited capacity.

“When people don’t know who to call they call us,” Staten said. “It’s having an impact on us.”

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