BUCHANAN – At 79 and frail, George Shafer is fretful about where he’s going to get his prescriptions filled once Ransone’s Drug Store closes for good next week.
For decades, Ransone’s filled the Shafer family’s prescriptions because it was an easy trip from his home. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I really don’t,” Shafer said, his voice quivering a bit. “I guess I’ll have to run all the way to Daleville or Lexington.” Nearly 40 and 55 miles round trip from Buchanan, respectively.
The old-fashioned drug store with nearly every type of over-the-counter medication from single box of lice treatment and eye itch relief on its shelf was a staple on Main Street, since its opening day during the Great Depression. Since then Ransone’s served customers when flooding nearly wiped out the town, even during the town’s exodus in the 1970s and 1980s. When other businesses closed down, Ransone’s stayed open with its art deco neon sign above the door.
But on Nov. 2, the employees will fill their last vial of medicine, count their last pill and give soothing, reassuring advice about medications for the last time, the victim of small-town economic challenges and the impact of giant corporate pharmacies crushing small, independently owned drug stores.
Pharmacist Dan Skibinski explained that the owner, Robert Ladd, decided to close Ransone’s for financial reasons. “We’re not getting rich. We’re making our bills,” he said, two weeks before closing for good. Ladd couldn’t be reached for comment. Neighboring Buchanan Fountain and Grille will remain open.
Skibinski estimated that for some months now the pharmacy filled about 100 prescriptions daily, explaining for a small independent drug store that is good. But not enough to keep the “OPEN” sign hanging on the front door.
The pharmacy was opened by an optimistic Willie Ransone in 1937, a year of great hope and deep disappointment as the U.S. continued to struggle economically during The Great Depression. Production, profits, and wages had regained their early 1929 levels, while unemployment remained high, but it was substantially lower than the 25 percent rate seen in 1933. But then, the economy took a sharp downturn in mid-1937, lasting for 13 months.
Ten years later, Ransone moved his pharmacy to its present location, 19771 Main St., where it remained for the last 73 years. Long-time patrons said Willie Ransome may be gone, but the one-on-one customer service continued.
“You can talk to the four [employees]. They remember my name, the medicine I take. I feel comfortable with them, asking questions about my medicines,” said 82-year-old Catherine, who didn’t want her last name used.
Skibinski, who considers all customers his patients, said, “They just hate to see us go. They aren’t just our patients; they are our friends.” He explained the downtown Buchanan location was convenient to many people, especially the elderly.
Of late, he said, there’s been an uptick in patients needing individual attention from someone who’s understanding and knows the importance of confidentiality. Since COVID-19, the pharmacy has witnessed a significant uptick in anti-depression prescriptions. With economic uncertainties, high joblessness, children out of school, life, he said, has impacted people mentally. “Life has become a burden, daily living is a headache,” he said.
With the shuttering of Ransone’s, the county lost its last independently owned drug store. Within the last few years another independent pharmacies closed, Fincastle Pharmacy.
After Nov. 2, only large, chain pharmacies will serve Botetourt County. But that’s the trend in the drug store business, according to the industry. Botetourt County mirrors other rule areas across the U.S. Over the past several years, small independently owned drug stores along Main Street have closed, while large, publicly traded corporations open stores and enjoy sky high profit levels.
“It’s just such a struggle, a daily struggle,” said Skibinski of the David versus Goliath battle between small, locally owned and multi-billion-dollar pharmacies.
Rattling off a list of burdens – low government reimbursement rates, retail chains discounts and PBMs (pharmacy benefit managers) – is creating an ever-increasing canyon for small pharmacies, he said.
Skibinski’s face and then words did not hide his feeling towards PBMs. “They only benefit the insurance companies,” he said. “Insurance company profits got more obscene because of PBMs.”
The National Community Pharmacists Association, a trade group of independent pharmacies, contend PBMs are driving more and more independent pharmacies out of business. The PBMs’ aim was to combine the insurance companies’ buying power to decrease health care costs and pass the savings on to consumers, but along the way something went wrong.
“Like everything else in health care, pharmacy benefit managers have consolidated. There are now three large PBMs — CVS, Express Scripts, and UnitedHealth’s Optum — that account for more than 70 percent of claims volume. Concentrated market share should allow pharmacy benefit managers to extract deeper concessions from manufacturers and the rest of the supply chain. But market power has made a flawed business model sticky, with payers finding few alternatives to the shared rebates,” according to StatNews.com, a medical and scientific website.
In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments dealing with states’ ability to meaningfully regulate PBMs.
“For big insurance companies it’s volume and profits,” said Skibinski, who said that when PBMs started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that was when “independent pharmacies started taking nose dives.”
During a recent afternoon, three of Ransone’s employees were helping customers, Skibinski, along with Pharmacy Techs Pamela Bierer and Shandra Gordon. The drug store also employs a part-time pharmacist.
The conversations put many unsure customers at ease. Heads were nodding with signs of relief after employees calmly and knowledgably explained the prescriptions, if there are side effects, insurance information and more in their daily interaction. “It’s about individual service, not volume and profits,” said the pharmacist.
Skibinski’s future is already decided. “I’m tired, my legs hurt,” he said about his retirement.
For Bierer and Gordon the near future doesn’t include putting up their feet. There are jobs offers at chain pharmacies, but they want a bit of time off to consider their future. Bierer and Gordon, who have been at Ransone’s for 13 and 12 years, respectively, said that saying good-bye to long-time customers is the hardest part of the closing.
“I worry about the older people who can’t go elsewhere for their prescriptions,” said Bierer, as Gordon nodded her head in agreement.
Prescriptions will be transferred to the CVS in Daleville. However, independently owned Lexington Prescription Center is offering free daily delivery starting Nov. 1 if Ransone’s customers transfer their medication to that pharmacy. Refill prescriptions called in before noon will be eligible for same day delivery. The cost is free if the prescription is delivered or dropped off within the Buchanan town limits, or a $1.50 per mile outside, according to Lexington Prescription Center.
For more information, call Lexington Prescription Center at (540) 463-9166.