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Local pharmacies feel economic pinch
County facility, other private ventures eating into business
Woody's Pharmacy on Dahlonega Highway serves the Clermont area. Representatives of local retail pharmacies have expressed concern about the county opening its own clinic and pharmacy for employees, arguing local government should not compete unfairly with the private sector.

The mom-and-pop pharmacies of American lore, the ones with soda fountains or gift shops to go along with the charm of personal service, are not yet a relic of yesteryear.

But unease about a growing marketplace of competitors has left some local pharmacies wondering about their future.

That feeling was made all the more visceral recently when Hall County government reported that it saved $1.4 million in prescription drug and medical insurance plan costs for its workers in the first 18 months of operating its own clinic.

Labor and management costs totaled $621,000 during that time period.

“They’re taking our taxpayer dollars to do this,” said Scottie Barton of Riverside Pharmacy in Gainesville. “When they can’t operate a library, a park ... because we don’t have the money.”

The county converted the old East Hall library branch in the Rabbittown neighborhood off Old Cornelia Highway into a clinic and pharmacy for its workers, and more than 5,500 visits to the clinic were made between January 2015 and July 2016, an average of 24 per day.

Several pharmacies in Gainesville and across Hall County report losing customers as a result.

There is concern that the county clinic limits access to pharmacy options and doctors because cost savings may be a real advantage, and incomplete medical recordkeeping could be a consequence.

Then there’s the prospect of job losses as the county competes in the private sector.

But it’s not just county government that worries small pharmacies. Private business is moving in, too. 

For example, Fieldale Farms operates its own pharmacy for their workers.

And workers at places like the Northeast Georgia Medical Center, part of a large and growing industry in Hall, are covered through local hospital clinics or major retailer programs. 

County officials said its clinic and pharmacy was opened to cut health care costs, and small mom-and-pop pharmacies filled just 14 percent of prescriptions for their workers prior to the opening of the family health center.

“What I have to worry about is the health care cost overall,” Commissioner Scott Gibbs said. “We try to do everything we can locally.”

Rising health insurance costs are impacting both the public and private sector, and could hurt wage growth for workers.

“That’s why we have to be innovative,” Gibbs said.

But it’s in the lost relationships and the connection to the community as a veritable institution that worries Kevin Woody, president of Woody’s Pharmacy in Clermont.

“I’ve had customers that I’ve been over here in the middle of the night for,” he said. “The kids had the stomach bug ... but yet that relationship that I had earned, because of some financial advantage through an insurance plan, has cost me that business.”   

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