Loss of Independent Pharmacies a Bad Prescription for Military Health Care

Over a decade ago then-Army Sgt. Sean Rohe helped save the life of a senior non-commissioned officer and two servicemembers when an improvised explosive detonated under their armored vehicle on the way from Kabul to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Rohe received a Bronze Star for his bravery, but he paid for it with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress characterized by severe anxiety, migraines and severe lower back pain. 

He’s still paying for it today, particularly now that the Defense Health Agency (DHA) has made the controversial move of dropping most independent pharmacies from its Tricare network, replacing them with chains such as Walgreens and CVS.

I know this because Sgt. Rohe is my husband. 

Last month, we received a letter informing us that Tricare, which provides civilian health benefits for U.S. military personnel, military retirees and their dependents, is severing its relationship with our independent pharmacy this month. Our local pharmacy is one of approximately 15,000 such small businesses across the country that the DHA plans to drop from its network, a decision that will impact many veterans around the nation who rely on independent pharmacies near to their homes and workplaces.

We both imagined, wrongly as it turns out, that DHA would appreciate the superior service and quality medical care provided by these small businesses in serving thousands of veterans and their families. Now veterans are being forced to use large chains, which often provide impersonal, rushed service and lesser quality care.

Prescription medications are integral to my husband’s health and wellbeing, helping to control his chronic medical conditions. But they can only work if he has assistance in properly managing them. The Neighborhood Pharmacy in Alexandria, Virginia, knows us by name. They manage his many prescriptions and advise us on potential interactions. They offer guidance on ways to fill some of the name-brand prescriptions when lower-priced options produce less optimal results. Before finding this area independent pharmacy, we had to use a chain and my husband experienced poor health care. We have every reason to believe his health will suffer again if we’re forced back to a big chain.

There are 19,400 independently owned pharmacies in the U.S. DHA is removing 77 percent of them from Tricare’s pharmacy network – a reduction confirmed by DHA spokesperson Peter Graves. 

The reduction has rankled many in Congress who contend the move will impact millions of people across the Tricare system. Some 100 bipartisan lawmakers are protesting the removal, asserting in a recent letter to a top health official in the Pentagon that the decision is “significantly impacting 9.6 million Tricare beneficiaries’ access to local pharmacies.” 

This decision will especially impact veterans and their families in rural regions, where 76.5 percent of pharmacies are independent. With these businesses now off the rolls, that makes it much more difficult for veterans and their families in rural areas to access quality care.

“Independent pharmacies are the lifeblood of America and provide rural access to care,” says Ray Hughes, owner of an independent pharmacy in a remote region of Washington state. “Why is our military and government attempting to reduce and potentially eliminate amazing small business owners who serve their communities 24/7?”

Stacey Swartz, co-owner of The Neighborhood Pharmacy, passionately defends her pharmacy’s ability to provide enhanced service to servicemembers and veterans. “You’re not just a number to me,” she told me. “I know you. I know your husband. I know what medications you’re on and why. I have the capability to see you holistically. It’s the whole package.” 

An old Chinese proverb sagely advises that it is easy to get a thousand prescriptions but hard to get a single remedy. While this may be analogous to the pharmacy behemoths, it is flat-out-false when it comes to independent pharmacies that take the time to offer the care others do not.

For the many thousands of veterans around the nation, who like my husband will never regain their health, they deserve nothing less. 

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