When Dale Colee became a pharmacist in Decatur more than four decades ago, he was one of 18 independent pharmacists in the city.
Today he operates the only independent pharmacy in a four-county area.
“The ability to interact with patients is so important,” he said. “We do special packaging. We do deliveries. We do whatever it takes to get patients their medications so they can stay at home and be safe and have those medications when they need them.”
Observers say a shrinking number of local, independent pharmacies in Illinois is the result of payment cuts by middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers, combined with the state’s expanded Medicaid managed care program. Faced with a frustrating choice — lose money or lock their doors — many local pharmacists have gone out of business.
That’s why the state’s Critical Access Pharmacy program has been such a lifeline, Colee said. The program helps sustain independent pharmacies and prevent pharmacy deserts in rural Illinois.
“It was something we needed so badly. It is more critical even at this stage with everything going on with the pandemic.” — Pharmacist Dale Colee, Decatur
“It was something we needed so badly. It is more critical even at this stage with everything going on with the pandemic,” he said. “That access to a pharmacy is so important in small towns. Many times, the only individual that has a health care background in some of these smaller towns is the pharmacist.”
Since July 1, 2019, the Illinois Office of Comptroller has disbursed about $9.7 million in payments to hundreds of critical access pharmacies in Illinois.
Many independent pharmacies are the only rural pharmacies available for miles, making them a key frontline health care provider — especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic — and a vital part of the local economy.
“Every single person in Illinois should have access to their medicine, to a pharmacist, to someone they trust to fulfill their medical needs.” — Illinois State Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza
“Every single person in Illinois should have access to their medicine, to a pharmacist, to someone they trust to fulfill their medical needs,” said Illinois State Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza, who prioritizes payments from the Critical Access Pharmacy program.
And as the rural population ages and sees increased poverty, access to a local pharmacy is more important than ever, she added.
“You have older people who can’t just go to a pharmacy nearby, but what if you’re a person with a disability or you lack transportation? You can’t just jump in your car and drive 30 miles to the nearest CVS,” she said.
“I think anyone who thinks otherwise has either never been to a rural area or just care doesn’t care to find out. It’s heartbreaking, and because I’m in a position to do something, we’re going to continue to prioritize rural pharmacies.” ■