Q&A: Carrying the torch

As Greg Wasson, president and CEO of Walgreens, settles into his new role as incoming chairman of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Drug Store News caught up with him to get his thoughts on his new role and his industry perspectives.

DSN:
As incoming chairman, what is your first order of business?

Wasson: First, I want to point out that Steve Anderson has done a terrific job in responding to the concerns of the board and the members, and then focusing NACDS’ work on what we believe the industry needs to support. I think the priorities of the individual members are the same as those the association is driving. So I don’t foresee any drastic changes. My objective as chairman is to continue to support Steve and his staff, and to do everything we can to execute the strategies that we’ve identified as beneficial to the industry. Another area to emphasize is the front-of-store business. As our industry works to advance the role of community pharmacy, a natural extension of that is the front end of our stores. I don’t think we can view them as two different businesses anymore, and NACDS absolutely can help us build those relationships during the meetings that we have. For example, the Total Store Expo, which is a new event, gives us the opportunity to get everybody together and have really strong face-to-face conversations. NACDS will continue to drive that.

DSN:
It has been more than 30 years since you joined Walgreens as a pharmacy intern. Over the years you’ve moved up the ranks, and today you serve as president and CEO. How has this, as well as your role as vice chairman of the NACDS board, helped prepare you for your new role as NACDS chairman?

Wasson: I think my preparation goes even further back than that. My biggest influence is my dad. Growing up in Indiana, he taught us how to work hard and how to stay humble. When I was young, he opened a campground from scratch, and it was really my first experience with business. He always said you’ve got to find something somebody wants, give it a good price and then deliver good service. And that’s the key to business. It’s pretty simple.

As a company, we have kept community pharmacy vibrant over the years and helped influence the industry. I think that has prepared me well, too. That’s what we’re trying to continue doing today as well. Ninety percent of what I do is communicate. As I tell my daughters, whatever you do in life — whether it’s with your spouse or your family or as a CEO of Walgreens — it’s all about communication. I’m the chief communicator for Walgreens, whether it’s internally or externally with the public or with policy-makers. You have to understand that strong communication is a big part of what we all do. I think being the chief communicator for Walgreens and the chief communicator for NACDS go hand-in-hand since all drug stores share many common issues and concerns.

DSN: What do you think are some unique experiences and perspectives that you will be able to bring to the table as chairman?

Wasson:
I’ve seen that the association under Steve Anderson’s leadership has done a terrific job in bringing focus to key issues that help the industry. As NACDS chairman, I’ll benefit from the fact that the association’s strategy is that of the board’s — so it’s up to Steve and his team to execute it. With that said, I think most of us are aligned with the association within our own businesses. Our strategy absolutely is to advance the role community pharmacy plays in health care, and NACDS certainly advances that theme.

I expect to focus on two areas as chairman. The first is working to ensure that community pharmacy receives fair reimbursement for the services it provides and the value we bring to the healthcare system. Whether it’s government reimbursement or private sector reimbursement, that’s the immediate focus of the association. I think community pharmacy absolutely delivers value and needs to be recognized and reimbursed for that value.

We also need to continue to advance the role that community pharmacy plays in providing new and innovative services, such as immunizations and vaccinations. I’d like to think that Walgreens is one of the early leaders in those areas, but the entire industry has now stepped up and jumped into providing those services. I think the nation is seeing that the access community pharmacy provides to services like immunizations and vaccines is a good thing.

DSN: What do you see as the three biggest challenges facing the industry, and what are three things you are most optimistic about?

Wasson: One of the association’s top priorities is on governmental affairs and ensuring that the pharmacy profession is valued by policy-makers. Pharmacists need to be recognized for what they deliver and also seen as a profession that can play an even greater role in health care. Telling that story and making sure people see pharmacy as the face of neighborhood health care is more critical than ever. We want to continue to advocate for that and use that platform to help the industry realize its full potential. NACDS is focused on that by lobbying for legislation and regulations that provide for fair reimbursement for the services that community pharmacy provides. That should be the case whether the reimbursement is from the government sector or the private sector.

One area in which I’m very optimistic is the effort to advance the role of the industry, meaning areas like medication therapy management and immunizations. It’s all part of making our industry the face of neighborhood health care. I’m also optimistic about what we’re seeing, from Walgreens’ perspective, as a real desire on the part of Pharma companies to work with community pharmacy to play a greater role in their future. Part of it is due to recent changes the drug manufacturing industry is experiencing. Those companies are beginning to see that adherence and compliance can be a big part of their future business model. That may not have been as high on the radar in the past, when drug manufacturers had fairly steady streams of new blockbuster medications coming out.

I hope to see Pharma align more closely with NACDS. As the business changes, our professions become even more dependent on each other. More people are beginning to understand the value in the pharmacist-patient relationship. And it’s not just about the delivery of the product. It’s more about the service, the communication and the value that comes with that. When we talked about community pharmacy in the past, the product was the pill. Today, the product is the patient outcome.

Finally, the focus I see from NACDS and the industry has me very optimistic. With that increased focus, we can be much more direct in our relationships with other businesses. There’s always a balance between trying to make sure that we maintain good relationships with those we do business with and standing up to ensure that we’re being valued for the services we provide. I intend to carry the torch for the industry, just as I’ve carried the torch for Walgreens. I can’t think of a time that I’ve been involved with NACDS that it’s been as aligned and as focused as it is right now. That’s what it’s going to take to continue to influence the environment that we operate in.

DSN:
With the ESI-Medco mega-merger hanging in the balance, what’s your message as incoming NACDS chairman to smaller pharmacy operators, and what do you think they should be thinking about with regard to the PBM threat?

Wasson: [The National Community Pharmacists Association] has been a close ally for a number of years and should continue to be. We’ve done some real good there, as far as moving that relationship closer; and hats off to Steve and his group for helping with that. The association and industry, over the last couple of years, have really made significant progress in helping to inform and educate policy-makers as to the real role of community pharmacy. I’m very encouraged by the community pharmacies, both large and small, who are inviting policy-makers into their locations and getting them inside pharmacies so that they have a first-hand experience.

Over the last several years when visiting Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that there’s nothing better than show-and-tell management. It’s one thing to spend time in policy-makers’ offices trying to explain the value of community pharmacy, [and] it’s another thing to invite them out to spend time in a pharmacy and show them where the industry is going. A great example is when Walgreens hosted Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, at a Walgreens pharmacy in Chicago. We had her in one of our stores for more than an hour. It would have taken me all day in her office to try to give her the same overview of pharmacy as she got seeing it firsthand. She was intrigued with what she observed.

I applaud everyone in the industry — whether it’s a small, regional chain or another large chain — for doing the same thing. NACDS’ annual RxImpact Day — which brings pharmacists, pharmacy executives and other industry advocates to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators and staff members — is another very effective tool we have for getting our message across. As the industry becomes more aligned, more people understand the value of telling our story directly to legislators, and I encourage smaller pharmacy operators to do the same thing.
 

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