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Pharmacy labor shortage? Study shows need for workers, contributing to longer wait times

A national survey reports 80% of independent, community pharmacies say they're having difficulty hiring workers, with waits also reported at major pharmacy chains.

NORFOLK, Va. — Author's note: the video above is on file from Aug. 24, 2021.

Pharmacies are looking for more workers after a hectic year of filling prescriptions and administering millions of COVID-19 vaccinations. 

A national study shows many pharmacies are experiencing personnel shortages, backing up reports of longer wait times at pharmacies around Hampton Roads.

Virginia pharmacies have administered 3.6 million COVID-19 vaccinations this year, more than medical practices and health departments combined.

When added to filling prescriptions and patient care, industry leaders said pharmacy staff burnout was always possible.

“Some of that’s due to, frankly, the increased demand and workload from point of care testing and COVID vaccinations," said Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association. "It's been both exhilarating and exhausting."

The NCPA represents more than 21,000 independent pharmacies nationally.

Hoey said the organization surveyed its members, finding about 80% are having difficulty filling open positions – mostly for pharmacy technicians and front-end employees.

“A shortage of them creates shortages of getting prescriptions filled as quickly as they normally would, and also getting vaccinations done," Hoey explained.

RELATED: Hampton Roads health expert gives timeline of COVID-19 booster shot

The survey of community pharmacies reports about 13% are having problems hiring staff pharmacists, with most saying workforce needs are in other roles.

13News Now asked more than a dozen local pharmacies in Hampton Roads if they’re experiencing labor shortages. 

Most owners said no, but they said they've heard of problems or longer wait times with national pharmacy chains.

In a statement, a CVS spokesperson responded to questions from 13News Now about workforce staffing, saying: "We adjust our hiring levels to meet demand as has been the case since the start of the pandemic."

The CVS spokesperson didn't reply to follow-up questions.

A Walgreens spokesperson said: "Since the start of the pandemic, Walgreens has made adjustments supporting the staffing needs of our pharmacy teams. Ongoing support efforts include increasing budgets for pharmacy operations and trainings... we’re confident in how we’re staffing to support [pharmacist] needs, those of our pharmacy teams, and the needs of communities and patients that we’re privileged to serve."

Hoey, recognizing his position as an advocate for independent pharmacies, said he wouldn't be surprised to see similar labor shortage reports in the larger stores.

"Pop up problems that could be happening in community pharmacies would be magnified in the chains, waiting a little bit longer for that prescription," Hoey said.

RELATED: Testing is 'still a critical component' in the fight against COVID-19

Unlike other industries, pharmacies are in a tough position to counter labor shortages.

If pharmacies raise wages or benefits to attract workers, they can’t in turn pass rising costs onto customers, because prices are controlled by pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies.

"There’s no ability for the pharmacy to say, 'Hey I just increased wages by 10%, I need to increase prices by 10%,' because the insurance companies decide what the pharmacies get paid."

Within two weeks, health officials are expected to encourage COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for millions of Americans.

Hoey said data shows most Americans prefer the convenience of getting a shot at a familiar pharmacy, so pharmacists are expecting a very busy fall, but he's confident staffing shortages won't cripple the industry.

“Workforce demand is going to be high, just pack a little more patience," he said. "There will be enough pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to provide COVID vaccinations and flu shots for patients."