'What a nightmare': Short-staffed pharmacies are reducing hours and patients are angry

Sign on the CVS pharmacy, 1525 N. Central Ave., Phoenix drive-thru window on Oct. 10, 2021. Many Valley pharmacies have reduced hours amid staff shortages and high demand.
Stephanie Innes
Arizona Republic

When Kirti Dwivedi's mother realized her glucose monitor wasn't working and that something was off with her blood sugar, her daughter assumed it was an easy fix.

No problem, thought Dwivedi, a social media and marketing consultant who lives in Phoenix, we'll just get her a new monitor.

It was about 9 p.m. on Sunday.

While getting a glucose monitor was easy, the test strips required to use the new monitor are kept in the pharmacy, behind the counter. Dwivedi's family could not find a pharmacy that was open, including the Walgreens pharmacy near her home near North 16th Street and East Glendale Avenue that normally is open 24 hours a day but as of Sept. 30 has been closing at 6 p.m. on Sundays.

Dwivedi's husband and father drove to four different Phoenix-area pharmacies, including one that was supposed to be open until 10 p.m. but was already closed, and another Walgreens that was supposed to be open 24 hours a day, according to an automated phone system, but it was closed, too, according to Dwivedi. They returned home without the test strips.

Kirti Dwivedi, Phoenix resident who said she could not find a Phoenix pharmacy open past 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021

Dwivedi's experience is not isolated.

People throughout the Valley are facing similar scenarios as short-staffed pharmacies reduce hours and in some cases close when they are supposed to be open. Consumers are reporting that some pharmacies rarely answer their phone and don't always have medications ready as promised. 

The stakes are high when people need their medication in a timely manner, want to speak with a pharmacist about possible drug interactions, or have limited transportation options to return if their appointment for a flu shot, COVID-19 test or vaccination can't be completed on schedule.

"I'm so frustrated, I can't stand it anymore," said Scottsdale resident and community volunteer Karolina Donis, who has watched the situation at her pharmacy deteriorate recently.

In one recent incident, a retired nurse said a Scottsdale pharmacy's delay filling her pain medication left her crying and miserable for days.

Both CVS and Walgreens, which are national chains, say they are working to hire more staff.

Walgreens has raised its hourly starting wage to $15 and is offering a sign-on bonus of $1,250 for full- or part-time pharmacy technicians hired now through the end of October, corporate spokesperson Fraser Engerman wrote in an email.

CVS has embarked on a nationwide hiring push "so we can continue to serve the health care needs of our communities," spokesperson Monica Prinzing wrote in an email.

The Arizona State Board of Pharmacy is aware of the pharmacy troubles, and is working to process pharmacist licenses as quickly as possible, Executive Director Kam Gandhi told The Arizona Republic on Tuesday.

"Across all job roles across the country there's a shortage, all across the board. ... Pharmacy is no different," Gandhi said. "We are processing applications as fast as possible, but even if I waved a magic wand and licensed everybody today in my queue, I still don't think that's enough manpower to fill the demand that's out there now."

An urgent resolution is needed, Dwivedi said.

"We've had pharmacists who have been really helpful when we've been in a place where my parents have a medical emergency and we're trying to figure stuff out," Dwivedi said. "I trust and depend on pharmacists as part of our health care system, and I don't know what's happening, but this isn't good."

'It was horrifying': Patients upset with Scottsdale CVS pharmacy

While pharmacies across the Valley are shortening hours, the situation at one CVS stands out as particularly bad.

An entire chat on a Nextdoor app for the Historic Old Town Scottsdale neighborhood is devoted to complaints about the CVS at 7552 E. Indian School Road.

Among neighbors' grievances: Lately, the pharmacy has only been open for drive-thru service; lineups are routinely six or more cars deep; the pharmacy's drive-thru service has closed without warning when it's supposed to be open; and some people who phone the pharmacy report being on hold for hours.

"I've been trying to get my prescriptions out of that CVS since Friday," said Suzanne Hedley, a retired IRS agent, who has been going to the CVS at 7552 E. Indian School Road for about a decade. "When I went, the drive-thru had at least 10 cars lined up. The pharmacy inside was all boarded up. ... It was surreal."

Hedley is going on vacation in a week and needs her thyroid medication, she said. She has never had a problem with the pharmacy before, she said.

Karolina Donis, Scottsdale resident who is frustrated by reduced hours and staffing shortages at her CVS pharmacy

Donis, who has been using the Indian School Road CVS pharmacy for about a year and a half, said that in her experience the location has always had problems with wait times and staffing.

Lately, though, the problems have worsened, she said.

"Last week, I spent a total of four hours and 37 minutes over a period of three days on hold with CVS trying to work out an issue where they were saying that my doctor's office had not replied with a refill for my thyroid medication and I finally gave up," Donis said. "I can't spend my whole day on hold."

On Sunday, when a reporter visited the CVS at about 4:30 p.m., the drive-thru lane was open, and a long line of cars snaked through the parking lot. A yellow sign taped to the front door of the store said, "Due To Staffing Issues RX Is Closed, Drive Thru Open 12 p.m. - 7 p.m., Please Treat Staff In Store Respectfully."

On Monday, retired social worker Paulette Wiley and her boyfriend, Gary Smith, showed up at the 7552 E. Indian School Road CVS at 10:45 a.m. for 11 a.m. appointments to get their second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

"There's no staff that we could see initially and there's these weird handmade signs at the pharmacy, 'Pharmacy Closed Due To Staff Issues,' and then there's another sign that says 'Drive-thru open at 1 p.m.," Wiley said. "The first one said 1 p.m., the second one said 2 p.m."

In the meantime, some older people entered the CVS, a few of them using canes and walking with difficulty, Wiley said. They wanted to know how people without cars could use the pharmacy. One younger woman, using a cane, was crying, Wiley said. Since there were only two chairs, some of the older people were standing, Wiley said.

"It was horrifying to stand there and watch," Wiley said. "If you know that population, you'd know that a lot don't drive and their whole day revolves around getting a ride to the pharmacy."

Wiley said a nurse came out and told Wiley and Smith to come back for their shots at 1 p.m., which they did, but the nurse didn't show up until 1:40 p.m. and Wiley said they didn't receive their shots until close to 2:30 p.m..

Though they were able to receive their shots, Wiley said the drive-thru pharmacy still wasn't open when they left and the indoor pharmacy remained closed, too, though she said a staff member who appeared to care about the situation was talking to those in line individually.

After Wiley got home, she said she contacted CVS' corporate offices to complain.

Sign at the CVS,  7552 E. Indian School Road in Scottsdale on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021.The store is frustrating the patients who use it because they say the pharmacy has long line-ups and the indoor counter has lately always been closed.

When a reporter visited the CVS shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday — two days after Wiley's visit — the situation appeared to have improved. The drive-thru was closed and the indoor pharmacy was open. The line indoors did not appear to be long.

CVS officials did not directly reply to a question about whether staffing shortages are affecting patient safety, other than to say the company continues to meet the demand for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in addition to providing patients with "trusted pharmacy care" and "innovative health solutions."

In the event that a pharmacy’s reduced hours are inconvenient, a patient can visit any other open CVS pharmacy location for assistance with their prescription needs, Prinzing wrote in her email. Hours are immediately updated via the CVS telephone systems and are also visible online, she wrote.

"As part of the regular course of business, we periodically review operating hours to make sure that we’re open during peak customer demand," Prinzing wrote. "From time to time, this may result in a shift in store hours. By increasing or reducing hours, we ensure that our teams are available to serve customers when they’re most needed."

'Where do you go to get medication if you can't go to your local pharmacy?'

Several of the people upset with the Indian School Road CVS told The Republic that they were in the process of switching pharmacies, or had already changed to either a different CVS location or to a different pharmacy altogether.

"What a nightmare we had there. My wife was on hold for 45 minutes and they hung up on her," said David Warner, a retiree who said his wife encountered problems about a month ago when she tried to pick up an inhaler for her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"We got hold of the manager, who told us she was lucky, that people wait longer than 45 minutes. At that point, I said we've got to go. We're out of there."

Warner said he uses the pharmacy inside a nearby Fry's grocery store and he hasn't had any problems there. His wife, Cindy Warner, was using the CVS at 7552 E. Indian School Road because it was close to her work and CVS was covered by her insurance.

She's since switched to a nearby CVS at 7901 E. Thomas Road near Hayden Road, and that has worked out well so far, he said.

Yet Kathleen Elleray, a retired nurse who lives in Scottsdale, is a longtime customer at the 7901 E. Thomas Road CVS and said she had a terrible experience there last month, when it took four days for the pharmacy to fill pain medication she needed. Problems at the pharmacy have been increasing lately, she said.

"I was completely out (of medication) before the end of the four days. I was crying a lot. Those four days were very, very miserable. I spent a lot of time lying in the bathtub," she said. "I probably took too much Tylenol and ibuprofen. ... Where do you go to get medication if you can't go to your local pharmacy? If I knew of a better pharmacy, I'd go there."

Elleray took a video of herself describing the experience and sent it to CVS corporate headquarters but said she never heard back.

Jane Plank, Scottsdale resident, was unhappy with her understaffed, busy CVS pharmacy and switched to Walgreens

Jane Plank, a Scottsdale resident who works in sales, said she recently switched from CVS to Walgreens because of the problems she had encountered getting prescriptions from the CVS at 6045 N. Scottsdale Road.

"When you'd go there, no one was there," she said. "Many times, it's just shut down. One time, there was a woman there and she refused to look up because there was nonstop phone calls happening and then she just literally put up kind of a fake barrier and said she was only taking phone calls."

Switching pharmacies proved difficult, said Plank, who recently required medication for a thyroid issue and also pain medication after a total ankle replacement.

"I got stuck on the nightmare of the auto-renew and then I couldn't get them from the Walgreens because it was claiming it was already filled at the CVS. ... You can't get a total ankle replacement and not have your pain meds," she said.

"My wife was calling and would get me on the phone when she got my doctor, so I could say please help, please send it over to the Walgreens so we could get this filled. And she'd go over and they'd say it would be ready and there was still a hiccup through the system and it was saying insurance wouldn't cover it."

Plank said she's still in what she calls "the loop of hell" with her thyroid medication. She continues to get texts from CVS asking her to refill her prescription there, but she doesn't want to go back to a pharmacy that's so often either closed or unable to offer service in a timely manner, she said.

When a reporter visited the 6045 N. Scottsdale Road CVS at about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the pharmacy's drive-thru was closed and the indoor pharmacy was open, with lines to both drop off and pick up prescriptions. The line to pick up medications had 10 people in it.

"With pain management or thyroid (medication), you can't skip days," Plank said. "Especially the heavier pain management, you have withdrawal. ... I'm a solution-oriented person. The solution could be to opt in or opt out on the auto-renew. Just allow me to opt out and then we won't have to do this anymore."

Pharmacist job openings are up 13% nationwide over 2020

The American Pharmacists Association conducted a nationwide survey of pharmacists in September, and 41% of the respondents cited "staffing support" as one of their biggest challenges in providing COVID-19 vaccinations, spokesperson Frank Fortin wrote in an email.

"We have received many reports from around the country that pharmacists and other pharmacy personnel are being stretched, and are experiencing added stress during this phase of the pandemic," he wrote. "We have empirical data to underscore those reports."

The Pharmacy Workforce Center recently reported there were 11,356 pharmacist job postings nationwide through the third quarter of 2021, which is a 13% increase over the same period in 2020, Fortin wrote.

The 24-hour Walgreens at North 16th Street and East Glendale Avenue in Phoenix recently put up a sign that say its 24-hour pharmacy has reduced hours as of Sept. 30, 2021. Many Valley pharmacies have reduced hours due to understaffing.  Photo taken on Oct. 11, 2021.

The Pharmacy Workforce Center also reported 124,547 pharmacy technician job postings during the first three quarters of 2021 compared with 106,145 for the same period in 2020, which is a 15% increase. Pharmacy technicians recently were granted the authority to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

In a national survey of independent community pharmacists conducted in May, 80% of the 278 respondents said they are having a difficult time filling open positions, the National Community Pharmacists Association reported in June. The survey was sent to roughly 8,000 pharmacy owners and managers.

Nearly 90% of those who responded said they can’t find pharmacy technicians, and nearly 60% can’t find front-end employees to run the cash register, track inventory, and manage other basic store operations, the survey found.

“This is a major challenge for community pharmacies that are seeing many more patients because of the pandemic,” association CEO B. Douglas Hoey said in a prepared statement when the survey was released. “Finding qualified workers is tough under normal circumstances. This is an acute problem for local pharmacies that should be at full strength now.”

Gandhi, the executive director of the Arizona Board of Pharmacy, said some issues the pharmacies are having are related to customer service and customers should communicate their complaints to companies that operate the pharmacies.

The state Board of Pharmacy is tasked with protecting Arizonans from unprofessional conduct or incompetence of pharmacists. Complaints related to pharmacist conduct may be filed online: https://pharmacy.az.gov/content/file-complaint.

"We definitely want to ensure that the right patient gets the right medication written by the right doctor and so forth," Gandhi said. "We look at a lot of different things, but as far as wait times and stuff like that, these times are difficult and that may be more customer service-related than under our board's authority."

'If there's just not enough manpower out there, it's difficult to address'

Gandhi said that given the current pharmacy staffing issues, people should fill their prescriptions as far ahead of time as possible, so that they don't run out of medication.

"Planning ahead definitely helps. Obviously, if you know you are running out of medications five or seven days in advance, you may want to plan accordingly rather than calling a pharmacy at the 11th hour and saying, 'I only have one pill remaining,'" Gandhi said.

Gandhi also asked that the public try to be understanding with pharmacies and their staff.

"It's a difficult time," he said. "Some pharmacies are having to make a decision about how do we best serve our people? ... If there's just not enough manpower out there, it's difficult to address."

Engerman, the Walgreens spokesperson, wrote in an email that in instances where a local Walgreens store may have temporarily adjusted hours or a disruption, the store team will direct customers, as appropriate, to the nearest Walgreens for their prescription needs.

"On the occasion a store has a temporarily adjusted hours, it is reflected on the store locator, which is updated throughout the day at Walgreens.com/FindaStore and on the Walgreens mobile app," he wrote. "Customers who have questions about their medications can also talk to a Walgreens pharmacist using the Pharmacist Video Chat feature available 24/7 on Walgreens mobile app and website."

Donis said she had really been trying to give her CVS pharmacy the benefit of the doubt. But she's been attempting to get her thyroid medication since last week and has decided to switch pharmacies.

"I know everybody is short-staffed. I try really hard to be understanding. It's strange times and all that, but this is beyond the pale," she said. "I will be moving, as soon as I can get somebody actually on the phone at CVS to transfer my prescriptions."

After Dwivedi's husband and father returned from their futile search for a pharmacy that was open late Sunday night, Dwivedi ordered the test strips her mother needed from Amazon.com, asked for priority shipping, and was able to get them by 6 a.m. the next day, she said.

"I'm so glad the strips showed up when they did. We kept an eye on her, figured it out and got the strips to work," Dwivedi said. "Her blood sugar has been elevated and it's really dangerous. ... If your blood sugar monitor dies, what do you do?"

Reach the reporter at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes.

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