Alpena-area drug stores fill rural gaps

Courtesy Photo This undated photo taken by pharmacy technician Courtney Nunneley showcases The Drug Store’s large-scale bubble packs.

ALPENA — Medication is an essential part of our lives.

For those living in rural communities, getting access to vital prescriptions can be difficult.

Corporate pharmacies such as Walgreens, CVS, and Rite-Aid consider access when choosing locations, but they also prioritize market shifts, populations, and the number of stores in an area, according to the Associated Press. Such stores are more likely to avoid smaller communities or close abruptly within them if they aren’t making enough money.

As a result, local, family-owned pharmacies fill the gaps, sometimes to their own detriment.

Courtney Nunneley is a pharmacy technician and treasurer of The Drug Store, the oldest pharmacy in Alpena, which has been running for 52 years. Nunneley is the granddaughter of the owner and said she grew up around the pharmacy.

At 16, she started working as a clerk there, and, two years ago, after finishing college, she returned to take on financial duties so her grandmother could retire. She said she was always interested in health care and finance, and The Drug Store allows both of her interests to collide. Her personal experiences with Type 1 diabetes has also influenced her perspective.

“For 17 years, I’ve seen how difficult health care can be, either with insurance or even doctor’s offices,” Nunneley said. “I’ve been through every issue that there’s probably been. So, when a customer comes in and has problems, I want to make sure that we do everything in our power to help them and make them feel less anxious and stressed about their situation.”

Nunneley said the pharmacy serves not only those in Alpena, but patients from Rogers City, Black River, Ossineke, and Oscoda. She said customers will switch to The Drug Store because they sometimes provide prescriptions other providers cannot.

Despite that, she said the pharmacy sometimes struggles.

“What people don’t see is that, sometimes, we lose money on prescriptions,” she said. “Sometimes, insurance companies don’t pay us what the medication costs us to buy, and that’s where we hurt more than corporations. We still want to take care of our patients, but, when you see that negative number, it’s hard, and it’s getting worse and worse. There’s more and more independent pharmacies that are going out of business because they just can’t afford it, anymore.”

To combat that, Nunneley said the pharmacy has started offering vaccines and services to those with Medicare coverage. She said the pharmacy has also started offering bubble packs that contain an entire month’s worth of prescriptions for patients.

“We understand medications, here,” she said. “We know how important it is to make sure that their medications are covered and making sure that the plans make sense for them and not just what puts the most money in the agent’s pockets.”

Nunneley said that the pharmacy is taking new patients. She said patients in rural areas and with low access should go to independent, family-owned pharmacies, because it will mean more both to the pharmacy and to the patient.

“If you can help an independent (pharmacy) by being a patient there, that means more than it’s going to mean to somebody at Meijer or Walmart,” she said. “And, to me, your independents are always going to be more willing to take care of you.”

This story was produced by the Michigan News Group Internship Program, a collaboration between WCMU Public Media and local newspapers in central and northern Michigan. The program’s mission is to train the next generation of journalists and combat the rise of rural news deserts.


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