By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
SOUTH HERO – The closure of the tiny South Hero Pharmacy and the buyout of patient records by giant Walgreens took less than a week, according to the owner.
The crush of the world-wide pharmaceutical industry on small independent stores coupled with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic was just too much for South Hero Pharmacy to handle, Riyaz Merali, the store owner and only pharmacist, told The Islander over the weekend.
Merali was reacting to negative social media postings from longtime customers that say they were given no notice of the South Hero Pharmacy closing, nor were they allowed to choose where to move their prescription business. It was the only pharmacy in Grand Isle County.
Customers arriving for prescriptions on Friday found the pharmacy closed and learned Merali had transferred the patient medication records to Walgreens in Milton about 15 miles away. He declined to say the price of the sold records, but said federal medical privacy laws were followed.
The sale to Walgreens was designed to ensure uninterrupted service for customers, said Merali, who also is known as “R.J.”
He said unhappy customers are free to move to any pharmacy of their choice.
The Walgreens is almost a half mile further north on U.S. 7 than two other Milton Pharmacies: Hannaford’s and Kinney Drugs, which has a drive-up window.
Other local customers that travel more often toward Colchester or Winooski said they might have preferred a pharmacy in one of those communities and not have to detour to Milton.
Merali said his first preference was always to sell the store so the Champlain Islands would continue to have a local pharmacy – the only one for the five towns.
The current customer volume at the store was not enough for Walgreens to be interested, he said. Walgreens also would have needed to add a second pharmacist to cover its more expanded hours, he said.
Independent pharmacies have felt the squeeze in recent years – especially with direct and indirect fees put in by industry middlemen, known as Pharmacy Benefits Managers, Merali said. PBMs play a major role as they are positioned between pharmacies and insurance carriers, he said. They help set medication prices.
Independent pharmacy owners also frequently get surveys about possibly selling, Merali said.
He said he had received surveys through the years, but as he was struggling, Walgreens made a strong pitch last Monday. By Wednesday a draft contract was available. By Thursday it was a done deal and a district manager for Walgreens showed up that evening. He came with large colored posters announcing the closing with a large picture of a Walgreens and a map to the Milton store.
COVID-19 pandemic cost Merali about a half dozen store employees, he said. A couple were in the high risk category and a couple were students and did not want to deal with it. At least one employee needed to home school a child, he said. That left Merali and two part-time employees to keep the store afloat since March.
A Walgreens spokeswoman has declined an interview, but issued a statement confirming that the corporation had reached an agreement with South Hero to acquire their prescription records.
Walgreens did not disclose the sale price.
The South Hero store has been renamed “Nadia’s Health, Wellness, Gift and Variety Store,” he said. It will feature non-regulated health and beauty products.
Nadia’s (named for his daughter) can be reached at (802) 372-6407. The old drugstore phone number rings into Walgreens in Milton.
He said initial hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and probably 9 a.m. to 3 on Saturday. Merali, who did open sometimes on Sundays during the summer, said he will consider those hours too.
South Hero Pharmacy, previously known McGregor’s Pharmacy, was incorporated by Merali in December 2013