From every angle, the edifice of Richard Ost’s Philadelphia Pharmacy at the corner of North Front Street and East Lehigh in West Kensington is a sight to behold, one of the jewels of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program.
Artist Cesar Viveros painted bright Caribbean colors, natural plant-based remedies and anachronistic amber glass bottles filled with balms, salves
Ost, who is Jewish, has been a fixture in this community since 1983, and neighborhood leaders celebrate Ost’s pharmacy as a showpiece. He’s been grateful for the patronage; the Huntingdon Valley resident has made a comfortable living in his many years in business, and prior to the advent of the novel coronavirus, he had no plans to abandon his post.
And yet, a little more than two months ago, Ost was at his wits’ end, not sure whether he could make the business work anymore.
Most of Ost’s customers are Medicaid beneficiaries; prescription reimbursements from the state’s Medicaid managed care organizations have consistently been reduced. Ost was already troubled by thinking about how community-based pharmacies like his could continue to operate in the long-term.
Then the pandemic hit. Demand rose. Expenses rose. Hours and workload and payroll increased and profits continued getting smaller.
But the walls coming in from every direction somehow gave Ost some newfound perspective.
“Between January 1 and March 21, I felt I was getting taken advantage of by the state, by the insurers and by the PBMs,” Ost said, referring to the pharmacy benefit managers hired by the state’s Medicaid managed care organizations to run their pharmacy networks. “I’m still getting taken advantage of, but now my patients need something because of COVID-19. And without me, a lot of them aren’t going to get it.”
Ost decided he’d get through the short-term first and worry about the long-
It was around that time that Ost partnered with several other community-based pharmacies around the region to start a free hotline for people who needed help getting their medications. During the pandemic, this has applied more frequently to the most susceptible, the elderly who might otherwise walk to take SEPTA to pick up their medications but now find their normal routines too dangerous.
There’s a camaraderie, Ost said, among independent pharmacies.
If you’re in need of your prescriptions and you live in the area, the pharmacists that compose this consortium of community pharmacists will help you regardless of which neighborhood you live in — Ost and his colleagues will help you connect with your local independent pharmacy, who will drop off your meds free of charge.
Not a regular customer of any of the indie pharmacies in the network?
Ost and the others in this network of independent pharmacists can either help you themselves or they’ll know a community pharmacy near you that can.
“Before COVID,” Ost said, “we used to make maybe 20 to 30 deliveries per day; now we make 150.”
It’s the same deal for most of Ost’s peers, including Jeff Moskowitz, a Jewish pharmacist and longtime owner of Rapoport Pharmacy on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast. Moskowitz feels much of the same financial pressure that Ost does but also has a strong sense of obligation to his customers.
And like Ost, Moskowitz’s margins might be tighter, but the sense of dedication to the community is higher than ever.
“Over the last year and a half, our reimbursements from private insurance and from the state have been decreasing, and it’s gotten to the point now where it’s absolutely brutal to keep doing what we’re doing,” Moskowitz said. “But I’m not crying at all because I’ve been here forever, the neighborhood’s supported me forever and I hope to be here for years to come.”
For people having trouble getting access to their medications, the free hotline (215-934-9412) is available from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; drop-off is free.
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