Goodbye to a true regional Rx innovator

As reported Tuesday by Drug Store News’ Michael Johnsen, Raleigh, N.C.-based Kerr Drug, one of the industry’s most innovative pharmacy retailers and certainly one of its most determined practitioners of a higher level of pharmacy-based clinical care, has agreed to be acquired by the nation’s top drug chain and a healthcare innovator in its own right, Walgreens, for an undisclosed sum. The takeover should be finalized by late this year after it passes muster with regulators, and that process should be fairly routine even though Walgreens already operates some 200 stores in North Carolina.

For whatever investment it makes, Walgreens will get one of the remaining crown jewels of regional drug store retailing. In concrete terms, that means it will absorb all 76 of Kerr’s drug stores, its specialty pharmacy operation and its distribution center. But along with those stores will come Kerr’s intangible but no less real assets, including the hard-won loyalty of three generations of North Carolina consumers and patients and a sterling reputation for delivering one of the broadest menus of health care services in pharmacy retailing, in the most accessible way possible.

From my vantage point as a reporter with a long history of covering this North Carolina company, I can say this much: Kerr was fun to cover. Led by CEO, chairman and president Tony Civello, it was run by a team of drug store veterans — any of whom learned their craft at the old Thrift Drug chain based in Pittsburgh — who bought out the remnants of the original Kerr chain and some North Carolina Rite Aid stores in 1996 and welded them into a new kind of pharmacy chain with a new vision for community-based, accessible health services.

Early on, Civello and his team showed their determination to push the limits of pharmacy practice. It was clear they were willing to try anything in their quest to expand the possibilities for retail health care delivered by pharmacists and nurse practitioners, beginning with the opening of the first Enhanced Pharmaceutical Care Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1998. That original concept branched out into a variety of formats and experimental community health center prototypes, all with a focus on easy patient access, convenience and pharmacists with the training and autonomy to provide face-to-face clinical care, long before the concept of Medication Therapy Management came into vogue.

The process produced — and was driven by — some of the profession’s most innovative pharmacy leaders, including Rebecca Chater, Debbie Pruss Hiller, Ralph Petri and Mark Gregory, to name a few. It also spawned some of the boldest and most interesting retail health concepts anywhere, and led to Kerr’s participation in a slew of groundbreaking collaborative-care projects aimed at reinventing the community health care model, improving patients’ overall wellbeing and outcomes, and cutting health costs.

Walgreens’ leaders say they’ll keep the Kerr name in North Carolina for the time being. Let’s hope they also keep Kerr’s commitment to retail health innovation and pharmacy-based clinical care.


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