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PHARMACY

Pharmacy Innovator of the Year: Albertsons puts patients in the spotlight

Albertsons’ long game has seen it bet big on patient care — and it’s paying off

BY David Salazar

Albertsons Companies officials realized a long time ago that a focus on patient care could win out. Though the Boise, Idaho-based company — which operates in 35 states across 21 banners — has made its name as a powerhouse in the grocery industry through its acquisition of Safeway, its ownership of meal kit maker Plated and its portfolio of multiple $1 billion private-label brands, the work done by its roughly 1,800 community pharmacies is cementing its place in the lives of its patients and setting it apart as a pharmacy operator.

The retailer has managed, in many areas, to take the practice of pharmacy to the next level. Not satisfied at having been the first national chain to roll out pharmacist-administered immunizations and have the first pharmacist prescribe birth control to a patient in Oregon, in 2017, it became the first national chain with pharmacy technicians immunizing patients in Idaho under state law. Collaboration with state boards of pharmacy has kept it on the forefront of pharmacist prescribing capabilities in such states as Washington, California, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho; and a combination of combining pharmacists’ clinical skills with infrastructure from the Safeway merger and its recent MedCart acquisition has led Albertsons to make strides in its specialty pharmacy approach.

For these reasons and more, Albertsons has been named Drug Store News’ 2018 Pharmacy Innovator of the Year. Its pharmacy prowess starts with a strategy based on the role of its stores in its shoppers’ lives.

“In many of our markets, we trade in, we have No. 1 or No. 2 market share — we’re very entrenched in our communities,” said Nasri Massaad, vice president of Albertsons’ West region. “The high-level strategy is the same across all our pharmacies — to run strong patient-centric pharmacies, where our pharmacy teams provide personalized wellness experiences to every patient with every interaction, drive more customers to the pharmacy and the store, and convert our grocery shopper into a pharmacy shopper — all making them customers for life.”

Integral to this strategy has been leadership that recognizes the value of a pharmacy patient — whether it is a new one or a converted shopper.

“It starts with our CEO Bob Miller, and now following him Jim Donald,” said Tom Rousonelos, Albertsons vice president of pharmacy operations. “Bob’s philosophy has been that the pharmacy patient is the most important customer to us for a myriad of reasons — they’re the most loyal, they’re the stickiest and, quite frankly, they spend the most.”

As a result, Rousonelos said, the company has developed a three-pronged approach to pharmacy and converting grocery shoppers into pharmacy patients — focusing on scripts, standards and service. These aims begin with filling prescriptions, but are largely focused on efforts that go beyond it — both as margin pressures increase and payers, federal and private, keep their eye on patient outcomes when reimbursing pharmacies.

“We’re looking to expand beyond conventional fee-for-service prescription fills. Our big emphasis is on patient care,” Rousonelos said. “We’re a community retail pharmacy. For us, it means we attempt to practice pharmacy like an independent pharmacy does, with a very personalized approach. It also means encouraging our local pharmacists to engage the community, so they have a local pharmacy that can deliver many of the services they need, and they know about the services.”

Among the services Albertsons provides, besides a host of immunizations, are medication therapy management, comprehensive medication reviews and travel health offerings undertaken in partnership with a physician to provide both necessary immunizations, oral prescription and OTC medication to name a few. MTM administrator OutcomesMTM has recognized Albertsons as its top large pharmacy chain for nine straight quarters, noting the impact that an Albertsons pharmacist has on optimizing drug therapy. And while payers look at outcomes on such services, executives said that isn’t the main reason these services are integral to its pharmacy offerings.

“The way we look at it is, that’s just part of the job, whether you get paid for it or not,” said Mark Panzer, senior vice president of pharmacy, health and wellness. “Looking at the complete medication reviews and medication therapy management — that’s what we should be doing with a patient, making sure they get the best possible outcome based on their medications, their disease state or health condition.”

Beyond more traditional pharmacist enhanced services, Albertsons works closely with state boards of pharmacy to get in on the ground floor of expanded abilities for its pharmacists. Even before the Idaho law that allowed pharmacists to prescribe urinary tract infections and cold sores treatments, as well as statins for patients with diabetes, Albertsons was working with the board of pharmacy on a pilot that ensured its pharmacists were ready on day one.

“When it comes to those types of programs that require some legislative efforts, we work with our local state boards of pharmacy and legislators,” said Nikki Price, director of pharmacy operations at Albertsons’ Intermountain region. “We’re really instrumental in helping get those laws passed to allow us to do those services. We see the benefit of being able to service our customers and provide that additional care to them, so they come see us instead of another pharmacy.”

The company’s approach to patient care also encompasses specialty pharmacy, an area where it’s been gaining ground, in particular around how and where specialty medications are delivered. Brian Hille, vice president of patient, specialty and wellness, said that while the company does a good portion of mail-order fills around specialty, it also is offering in-store services — from pickup and counseling to the administration of long-acting injectables. It’s another way the chain makes itself a partner to manufacturers, as well as patients.

“Our next phase for some of these medications is what I call community pharmacy augmenting specialty services,” Hille said. “What we offer is specialty pharmacy services for medications, with the ability to send the fill to the community pharmacy so the patient can pick up their specialty medication along with the rest of their community pharmacy medications. This makes their specialty-medication fulfillment the usual rather than the unusual.”

All of these patient services position Albertsons for future growth by converting patients in-store, as well as by differentiating itself to managed care partners who can drive new lives into the pharmacies. This long history in pharmacy sets a strong foundation with one repeating lesson. “We’ve learned to keep the sacred relationship between the pharmacist and the patient at the center of everything we do” Panzer said.

The company’s size is another driver pushing Albertsons forward, said Dan Salemi, Albertsons group vice president of pharmacy services.

“One of the differentiators with us is we’re large enough to have some significant volume and get some interest with manufacturers who want to run a program, and we’re small enough to be nimble to pull it off,” he said. “We’ve got a reputation for executing well, so we’re in the sweet spot of moving quickly and having enough volume and scale to make an impact.”

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