Tommy Thompson, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, surprised attendees of the Food Marketing Institute Show last week with an appearance during the annual FMI Speaks program.
He surprised them yet again when he disagreed with FMI's Senior Vice President Michael Sansolo about the new Medicare prescription benefit law. When Sansolo said it was confusing, Thompson countered, "It is complex, but it is not confusing." He apparently was speaking quite earnestly -- and some may have taken it for humor.
This was news to many supermarket pharmacists gathered in Chicago that day for the co-located FMI Pharmacy Conference. As John Fegan, senior vice president, pharmacy, Ahold USA, Quincy, Mass., put it, "It's easy for him to say that, but right now we are on the pharmacy end and receiving these questions [from customers]."
"I think we are going to see a continuing amount of confusion on this for several weeks, Secretary Thompson's comments not withstanding," said consultant Donald Moran, president, Moran Co., Arlington, Va.
There may be a fine line between "confusion" and "complexity," but complexity quickly gives way to confusion when you are old and not well, like many Medicare recipients, or when you have a cognitive disability, like 25% of them. The Medicare Modernization Act, especially its drug discount card program, confuses some of the industry's more astute pharmacy executives, not to mention certain journalists.
To briefly sum up the bill's confusing elements -- or its complexity, if you will -- there are some 50 to 60 or more cards. Many have different contractual terms and cover different medications, and not all of them are better than existing discounts available to seniors. The discounts range from 10% to 35%, depending on who you ask; it's unclear how much of that retail pharmacy will have to pay for. Medicare's Web site that listed programs and prices had to be pulled down in a matter of hours because of inaccurate information. On top of that, the entire program is scheduled to conclude in 2006 when it is replaced with a permanent Medicare prescription benefit, the details and funding of which are still unresolved.
The picture I paint here may seem muddled -- or complicated, as Secretary Thompson holds -- but there is a crystal-clear benefit for supermarket retailers that operate pharmacies.
Many Medicare recipients are unlikely to go online or dial a toll-free number to find out what the best program is; they are only allowed one card. They will go to their local pharmacist. Many will go to supermarket pharmacies because of the convenience.
This is an opportunity to provide a truly useful public service that will result in increased business from the dispensing of pharmaceutical advice. As Ron Pearson, chairman of Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, pointed out during the Pharmacy Conference, the service and personal touch that supermarkets provide are part of the brand image they project.
John Fegan said it may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attract customers and build business for the whole store. "We have more questions than answers, but I think we are in a wonderful setting to be able to meet those challenges." To me, there's nothing confusing about that business opportunity.