People & Perspectives

The stores closed – the service didn’t

When recent events forced a number of big-city Walgreens to temporarily shutter, pharmacy teams in those regions helped make sure patients weren’t left on their own.

By Josh Gaby

Soralis Valenzuela

Above: Walgreens pharmacist Soralis Valenzuela pauses from her recent work at the nearby specialty pharmacy in Allentown, Pa., where she phoned dozens of patients affected by store closures in Philadelphia.
 

An hour away in Allentown, Pa., there wasn’t much Soralis Valenzuela could do for patients in Philadelphia whose neighborhood Walgreens now sat closed, awaiting repairs after looting. Nothing she could do to help make sure these patients – many without cars and now five to 10 miles from the nearest open Walgreens – were getting the medicines they needed.

Only there was something she could do. An important something.

She called them – one patient at a time, all day on June 8 and 9, with fellow Allentown pharmacist Pratibha Patel and others at her side doing the same thing. Together at the nearby Walgreens specialty pharmacy, they worked through lists, dialing more than 200 people, speaking with about half, as part of a multi-site effort to offer alternate options to 700-plus “store-less” Philadelphia patients who were due for prescription refills.

The most common reaction? Gratitude, often followed by relief.

“A lot of them were struggling without their Walgreens operating and didn’t have any sense of what to do,” says Valenzuela. “They were so grateful to us for calling – so happy we were intervening for them.”

The targeted outreach program started June 5 as Walgreens assessed numerous store closures in several major U.S. cities in the wake of ongoing protests for racial justice. Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Oakland had enough closures to warrant the extra call help. More than 20 pharmacy team members from surrounding cities have since pitched in – typically making their calls out of specialty pharmacy sites that already do large amounts of next-day prescription shipping through FedEx.

“There are two purposes to these reachouts,” says Dena Sullivan, manager of patient outcomes performance at Walgreens’ headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. “One, to check in and see how the patients in these affected areas are doing while they wait for their store to reopen, and two, to let them know we’re still here and we have options to get them their medications, whether it’s through free delivery or having prescriptions for them and their families filled at a different Walgreens.”

The importance of options

As of this Tuesday, pharmacy teams had spoken with 5,400 patients in the five targeted cities, with about 51 percent of those accepting the free home delivery option or transfer assistance. (Roughly half the calls don’t result in a conversation, usually because the call goes to voicemail and is not returned.) The call program will continue as needed while stores reopen – some faster than others, depending on the extent of the damage. Although some patients contacted already have had their prescriptions proactively filled elsewhere, others definitely appreciate the help.

“The biggest surprise to many patients as we went through this was that there were options, that they didn’t have to go to that one particular store they always went to – that Walgreens is connected across the chain,” says Sullivan.

For many of the patients Valenzuela spoke with, there was another nice surprise: She’s bilingual – a Puerto Rico native who moved to New York before settling in Allentown 13 years ago.

“That’s the biggest impact I feel I made,” she says, “because a lot of Spanish-speaking patients in these communities need help and didn’t know how to approach getting medications filled when the only store they go to near their house is not operational. They’d say, ‘No, no, I don’t speak English at all,’ and I was able to then switch to Spanish and tell them, ‘No temas’ … ‘Don’t worry.’”

Getting back to business

More than 2,600 miles away from Allentown in Los Angeles, along Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, assistant store manager Kyle Kennedy and pharmacist Scott Guzik were also calming nerves. While store windows were boarded up and cleanup was taking place after several rounds of looting between May 30 and June 3, customers would walk up to the doors of the store wondering how to get their prescriptions filled. At one point, eight Walgreens in the immediate area were closed; the nearest operational one was at least 20 minutes north in the San Fernando Valley. When a closer 24-hour location reopened not far away, Kennedy and his team directed patients there instead.

broken windows
Broken windows were part of the damage at the Walgreens at Highland and Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles earlier this month.

 

Guzik and the rest of the pharmacy staff began aggressively working the phones on June 5, calling more than 350 of their patients. The store had already reopened, but the outreach was no less important.

Kevin and Scott
Kyle Kennedy (left) and Scott Guzik

“We called to let them know we were open again, to welcome them back, to see how they were doing and to find out what we could do to help, including taking care of prescription needs that were coming up soon,” says Guzik. “Thankfully, not many people were going without medications in the few days we were closed – many were pretty resourceful and knew they could use our network and travel to a different Walgreens, which had been one of our bigger concerns while many stores in this area were boarded up.”


Much like the patients in Philadelphia, locals in Hollywood appreciated the calls, which helped fuel word around the neighborhood that they could return to the store.

“For several days, all across the city, everyone was pretty uncertain about which retailers were open, and it was really reassuring for our customers to know definitively that we were here for them,” says Kennedy.

Guzik says the warmth was felt both ways.

“What pleasantly surprised me was how much our store actually means to a lot of our patients – not just the physical store, but the team members within the building,” he says. “A lot of patients, before wanting to talk about themselves, were asking about us, too. These calls and conversations weren’t just about medications because we see each other as real people.

“What’s been going on lately across the country has been a shock for everybody, but it was reassuring to hear that our patients miss us, know we care about them and didn’t want to go anywhere else.”