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A popular local pharmacy in Woodstock closes down, blaming costs -- including a Portland business tax

ELIZABETH USSHER GROFF - The Woodstock Bi-Marts pharmacy department closed unexpectedly on November 11th.  Twelve other Bi-Mart pharmacies in the metro area were also shuttered at the same time.Some people tell THE BEE they literally cried a few tears when they learned that the Woodstock Bi-Mart's pharmacy department was closing. For many years, that pharmacy had been considered by local residents one of the most helpful and convenient pharmacies in Inner Southeast Portland. The outside window for customers had been an especially appreciated feature.

On November 9th, Bi-Mart headquarters in Eugene announced that thirteen of its pharmacies in the Portland Metro Area and in some surrounding towns would be shuttered at the end of Monday, November 11th, Veterans' Day. Customers were upset with the short notice.

Don Leber, Vice President of Bi-Mart Advertising and Marketing, told THE BEE in a telephone interview from the company's headquarters that the decision to close the pharmacies without much advance notice to the public was not the way they wanted to do it.

"We don't like the quickness of how we did it," he explained. But, he said, after the decision was made, the abrupt closing was due to complex and time-sensitive negotiations regarding which pharmacy Bi-Mart would transfer their files to.

In the end, the files went to Walgreens, and were transferred on Tuesday, November 12th to two of them – the Walgreens Pharmacy, at S.E. Holgate and Chavez Boulevards, and to the Walgreens on S.E. Holgate at 82nd Avenue of Roses. Leber said, however, customers would be allowed to ask Walgreens to transfer their account somewhere else, if it was more convenient for them.

Bi-Mart is a regional employee-owned company with seventy-nine stores in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In closing these particular pharmacies, Bi-Mart corporate cited the burden of the new business tax enacted last May in Portland, and Leber agreed that "Bi-Mart's total business tax will be $2.5 million a year. That is just the straw that breaks our back." But, Leber went on, that was not the only reason. Bi-Mart's pharmacies, as well as some other chain pharmacies throughout the United States, have been dealing for several years with difficult factors related to rising fees on Medicare prescriptions, and restricted access to health care plans.

"The DIR [Direct and Indirect Remuneration] fees are tacked on, reducing a pharmacy's profits." The National Association of Chain Drug Stores explains these DIR fees online: "DIR fees are the result of a loophole in Medicare regulations. Often more than half a year after a pharmacy fills a Medicare prescription, health plans and their middlemen are taking back money paid to pharmacies."

Leber puts it more simply, "Reimbursement for prescription drugs has been dropping. The pharmacies we're closing have been losing a lot of money for several years. We maintained those pharmacies [through those years], but now we're having to close them to better our [overall] situation."

On social media there have been fears expressed that Bi-Mart would close the entire Woodstock store. However, Leber claims that by cutting their losses on those of their pharmacies that have a lower volume of customers, they will be able to keep the entirety of Bi-Mart stores open. "Close all of Bi-Mart? That's not going to happen. But it is crazy to ignore the [profit losing] pharmacy situation," exclaimed Leber.

"There is no free lunch. Someone has to pay for these things that include increased tariffs, and we can't pass them on to consumers because some consumers will just say, 'I'll do without it [the needed prescription drug].' We don't want that to happen."

Meantime, Bi-Mart tells THE BEE that it will try to place its pharmacy employees elsewhere in their stores. But it is not an easy time to do so. Drew Larson, the former Woodstock Bi-Mart Pharmacy Manager, said he had moved to the Woodstock neighborhood expecting that he would have a long-term employment at this store. He is relieved, now, that he has found a new job as a pharmacist at Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital, and can take a bus to work.

As for Leber, at headquarters in Eugene, he remarked that the whole process has been quite difficult. "It is really sad and frustrating for us, but even more for the people we serve, and for our [pharmacy] employees."

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