When the Hall County Board of Commissioners voted earlier this month to open a pharmacy and health clinic for employees, officials debated over the best location, whether the city of Gainesville should be a partner and how much savings could be generated.
But there was little to no talk of how operating a pharmacy might impact local retailers, particularly small businesses like Medical Park Pharmacy on Limestone Parkway and Riverside Pharmacy on Green Street.
“Government shouldn’t undermine the communities they tax,” said Laird Miller, owner of Medical Park Pharmacy.
Miller said he believes the county’s move to open a pharmacy in the coming months at the old East Hall library branch in the Rabbittown neighborhood off Old Cornelia Highway could have major unintended consequences.
In addition to potentially losing customers, Miller is concerned about patients having to visit multiple pharmacies to get their medications, a prospect that could result in incomplete medical recordkeeping.
Those concerns, as well as the potential for job losses or reduced hours, are shared by representatives of Riverside Pharmacy.
“Our government has no business in business, interfering in the private sector,” said Wayne Gee, a pharmacist at the local retailer. “They have an advantage on us.”
County officials, however, said any impact on local pharmacies would be minimal.
“If I were competing with private industry, I would have massive concerns with it,” Commissioner Craig Lutz said. “We aren’t out there trying to take business away from any of these pharmacies.”
Because the county will service only members of its health plan, the pharmacy will not be open to the general public.
Moreover, employees will not be prohibited from getting their prescription drugs from a local retailer.
“I think we’re sensitive to that and that’s why this isn’t something we’re opening to the public,” said Commissioner Jeff Stowe. “I don’t think it’s going to have near as big an impact as they think.”
But there is no doubt that county employees will be incentivized or persuaded to do business with the county pharmacy.
Independently operating the pharmacy could, according to county estimates, produce about $268,000 in annual net savings.
These savings, however, are dependent on significant employee participation, and likely will increase as more and more workers choose the county’s pharmacy option.
County officials insist the move to open its own pharmacy is driven solely by the desire to cut health care costs, saving taxpayers money in the long run.
“Currently, we have 1,132 active employees covered by the medical plan and 2,802 total members, which includes dependents,” said Hall County Human Resources Director Bill Moats. “Retirees and their dependents account for another 389 members.”
Moats said big-box retailers such as Rite Aid and Walgreens filled 56 percent of all prescriptions for county employees in the 2013 calendar year.
Small mom-and-pop pharmacies, meanwhile, filled 14 percent of prescriptions for workers.
County officials said many workers live outside Hall, meaning no business would be lost at local pharmacies.
“I think the majority of the business that’s going to be taken away is not from inside Hall County,” Lutz said. “I don’t see this as being any kind of overreach of government.”
Nevertheless, concerns about government unfairly competing with these retailers appear to be one reason why Gainesville has, thus far, refused to partner with Hall County in opening the pharmacy.
“I do have a great concern in that aspect,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said. “As of right this minute, we have no intention of joining the county in their pharmacy.”
Councilman George Wangemann said the potential impact on local small businesses is his greatest concern, and something he’ll address if the city decides to partner with the county.
“I have no intention of hurting any private businesses,” he said. “You shouldn’t use tax dollars to compete with private business.”