Sticking to the ‘script

Nearly three years on, Dracut pharmacy still growing

From left, Pharmacy Technician Orlando Rivera, Lead Certified Technician Tiffany Nanthavong and Pharmacy Manager Sam Hantzis pose in Health Care Family Pharmacy in Dracut. The independent pharmacy opened about two and a half years ago. (SUN/Meg McIntyre)

DRACUT — More than 2 1/2 years after Health Care Family Pharmacy opened in Dracut, one of the owners says the independent pharmacy is making strides.

Since opening in April 2017, the company has more than tripled its customer base, according to co-owner and Pharmacy Manager Sam Hantzis, who went into the independent pharmacy business after working as a Rite Aid pharmacy manager for more than a decade in Lowell.

Hantzis said he’s happy with the business’ growth — but there’s still more growing to do.

“That sounds fantastic, but we need more,” Hantzis said recently at the pharmacy on Loon Hill Road. “We need more because it’s a challenge in pharmacy today, because reimbursements from insurance companies are not that great. So you really need to do volume.”

To set itself apart from chain pharmacies like Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens, Health Care Family Pharmacy offers personalized services, Hantzis said, such as free delivery and compliance packaging, which separates a patient’s medications by day and time of day. The services are especially convenient for elderly clients who have limited transportation options and may take many pills that can be a hassle to keep track of, Hantzis said.

But while these offerings have drawn customers, it typically takes three to five years for an independent pharmacy to become profitable, he said.

“We’re certainly headed in the right direction,” he said. “We’re not quite (at) three years, so I think this coming year will be a really big year for us. I think that’s where we turn the corner. That’s what we’re hoping.”

Tiffany Nanthavong, lead pharmacy technician at Health Care Family Pharmacy in Dracut, demonstrates the company’s compliance packaging, which separates patients’ medication by date and time of day. (SUN/Meg McIntyre)

According to Todd Brown, executive director of the Massachusetts Independent Pharmacists Association, there are an estimated 120 independent pharmacies in the commonwealth. At one point, there were about 1,000, he said, but about 20 years ago, their numbers began to decline as chain pharmacies came in.

In the early 2010s, the number of independent pharmacies in Massachusetts begin to increase again, he said, but the numbers have since begun to fall. He attributed the recent decline partially to the way pharmacy benefit managers operate. Some of these companies have started to buy up their own chain and mail-order pharmacies, he said, and have made efforts to steer patients to the pharmacies they own.

The association is advocating for legislative efforts to address the problem, he said, and noted that customer-satisfaction surveys have typically shown that patients of independent pharmacies are more satisfied than patients who go to other types of pharmacies.

“The issue isn’t that the chain pharmacies have been pushing them out,” Brown said. ” … Given an equal playing field, independent pharmacies are more than capable of competing.”

Hantzis said one of Health Care Family Pharmacy’s biggest challenges has been getting the word out about its services. People tend to assume that buying prescriptions from an independent pharmacy will be more expensive than purchasing from a chain, he said, or worry that switching will be a hassle.

But the pharmacy accepts all insurance providers and takes care of all of the logistics of switching pharmacies, he said.

The pharmacy is locally owned and operated, but it is franchised through Health Mart, which has more than 5,000 franchises across the country. Being part of the franchise gives the Dracut pharmacy buying power, Hantzis said, because it is owned by McKesson, one of the country’s largest drug wholesalers, so customers don’t need to worry about drugs being out of stock or priced higher than other locations.

There are several other independent pharmacies in the Lowell area franchised through the company, according to the organization’s website, including Tyngsboro Family Pharmacy, OneWorld Pharmacy in Lowell, Pepperell Family Health Mart Pharmacy, Ayer Family Pharmacy and McNabb Pharmacy & Home Healthcare in Townsend.

For Tiffany Nanthavong, the pharmacy’s lead certified technician, working at Health Care Family Pharmacy has been more fulfilling than her previous experience working in chain pharmacies. She said she enjoys having more interaction with patients and being able to offer more personalized services.

“It’s a lot more work, but we take pride in it because this is actually representing us and who we are,” Nanthavong said. “So when somebody sees that, it’s like, OK, this is from my pharmacy, I know who they are and I can trust them.”

Pharmacy Manager Sam Hantzis explains Health Care Family Pharmacy’s selection of cannabidoil (CBD) products. (SUN/Meg McIntyre)

According to Hantzis, one product that has been a boon for the store as it aims to grow is cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound found in cannabis. The pharmacy stocks CBD tinctures, capsules, drops and even dog treats, he said, and patients report they use the products for issues like insomnia and anxiety.

Because CBD products are not yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Hantzis said some customers feel more comfortable purchasing them in a pharmacy rather than through an online retailer. All products sold at Health Care Family Pharmacy have been vetted for quality and purity, he said, so clients can feel comfortable in their purchase.

Hantzis said independent pharmacies have more time to personally research products like CBD, as well as offer more labor-intensive services, such as working directly with doctors to adjust patient medications and proactively synchronizing prescriptions to be refilled on the same date.

“We’ve got to try and give them something that they’re not getting,” Hantzie said. “Otherwise, why come, right? And that’s really the big reason why people come here, because of the service. The level of service is just a lot better.”