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For Already Struggling Independent Pharmacies, Blue Cross Program Brings More Pain

North Carolina’s largest health insurance provider announced in November that it would mail more than $200 million in health and wellness retail debit cards to its members.

But as small businesses struggle to stay afloat amid rising COVID-19 infection rates, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has made accessing this juggernaut of financial benefits near-impossible for the wellness-focused companies that need it most: independently owned pharmacies.

Last month, writer and gardener Frank Hyman called Russell’s Pharmacy & Shoppe in historic Old East Durham to ask about using the $500 gift card he had received in the mail from Blue Cross.

Hyman was one of thousands of Blue Cross subscribers who received gift cards that the insurance provider had distributed to its members to provide them with a little financial relief in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Hyman wanted to use the card at the two-year-old, Black-owned Russell’s Pharmacy, which is located on Angier Avenue. But his plan skidded off the rails when co-owner and pharmacist Darius Russell told him the drugstore lacked a credit card processing machine that could process the 19 digits on the gift card. Cards like Visa and MasterCard normally have 16, Russell explained.

Hyman wasn’t pleased.

“BCBS is giving him and other local, Black-owned pharmacies the run around so their customers can’t use their debit card with them,” he wrote in an email to the INDY.

Black-owned pharmacies aren’t the only ones who can’t cash in on the wellness card bonanza.

Whether intentional or otherwise, it appears the Blue Cross wellness card favors national pharmacy chains such as Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart while giving the boot to local, independently owned druggists struggling to make an extra dollar during a pandemic that has shuttered many small businesses across the Triangle.

The wellness card program has the added effect of “keeping their subscribers from spending their own money at the pharmacy of choice,” Hyman says.

Russell figures he’s lost at least a couple thousand dollars in the month since the health and wellness gift card program began.

“Yesterday, a patient with $400 on her card told me she would love to spend it locally,” he says. “I told her, ‘I wish I could, but I don’t have the capability yet.’”

Russell says he’s called pharmacist colleagues in Durham, Carrboro, and Raleigh about the multi-million dollar gift card effort that has left them out in the cold.

“It’s the same thing—they’re frustrated,” he says. “This is money that people could be spending locally, that we’re literally missing out on. My fear is we’ll get the [card reader] 30 days after the holidays. But by then, all of that money will have walked out the door.”

Vip Patel owns Gurley’s Pharmacy in downtown Durham. He tells the INDY that the potential loss of a few thousand dollars could have effects beyond the holiday season. He explains that independent pharmacies aren’t just losing revenue; they could also lose patients, who might feel the businesses can’t take care of all of their needs.

“The patient learns they can’t use their card, and they get frustrated and go to the large chains,” Patel says. “They start to feel that we can’t take care of the patient as a whole, so what’s the use of going there?”

“I have a BCBS card, and I can’t use it in my own store,” he adds. “But I’m not going to use it at a chain pharmacy. Are you kidding me?”

The gift card wouldn’t work for Maria Herrera at Josefs Pharmacy on Roxboro Street in downtown Durham, where she has been working since March.

“I had to go to Walgreens,” she tells the INDY.

Russell says he first became aware of the health and wellness cards just before Thanksgiving, when one of his patients called the pharmacy to tell him that she had an over-the-counter gift card from BCBS. Continue Reading


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