The Hidden Danger of Inaccessible Pharmacies

Living with a rare disease provides enough challenges on its own. For residents of Chicago, however, challenges grew even more difficult as pharmacies shut down one after another. Certain areas face the danger of becoming “pharmacy deserts” according to some experts. Keep reading to learn more about this development, or follow the original story here.

Emma Washington is 77 years old and lives in Chatham. She depends on 12 different medications to keep her healthy and living. Many of them treat her high blood pressure, which she has had since she was 19. Others maintain her kidneys, weakened and worsening by a continuing condition. Still more drugs keep her diabetes manageable.

Ms. Washington visits the pharmacy three times a month at minimum. Her insurance doesn’t often allow her to get everything she needs in one trip.

When the pharmacy was only 10 minutes from her house, this wasn’t too heavy a burden. When that pharmacy closed, however, it extended her journey to half an hour and necessitated two different buses. When winter comes around she has to worry about snow, and ice preventing those buses from running. There will be times where she won’t be able to make the trip.

She questions how she is supposed to plan around this kind of difficulty. Sometimes it means waiting days on crucial medications. Other times it could mean not being able to access them at all.

According to public health professionals, many areas in Chicago like Chatham are becoming “pharmacy deserts.” The term applies to regions in which residents have limited access to either commercial or independent pharmacies. Hospital pharmacies are often not included as they only dispense to patients.

In Chicago, many of these neighborhoods are similar. They consist of low-income residents, and are often primarily black or Latino communities. Given these constants, and the variable range of services pharmacies are beginning to offer, experts express growing concern. Modern pharmacies are offering physicals, immunizations, drug counseling, screening for sexually transmitted infections, and access to opioid overdose treatment in some cases. This only increases the inequity in health care nationwide.

“A lot of public attention focuses on insurance, but that’s not enough,” says Dima Qato, an assistant professor in the department of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Even if medications are affordable,” Qato continues, “if the pharmacy isn’t accessible, they’re not accessible.”

In one study, Qato and her colleagues noted that pharmacies tend to exist in lower numbers in minority communities than in primarily white communities. Her more recent research indicates that five of Chicago’s community areas have no pharmacies within one mile of them.

This can be further complicated for residents without their own vehicles like Ms. Washington. Eulas Arrington is another example of this dilemma. Mr. Arrington is 30 years old. He suffers from asthma and always has. A recent diagnosis of sarcoidosis didn’t make things any easier. On top of that, Mr. Arrington is homeless.

CountyCare provides Arrington with insurance, but he still has no means of transportation. He depends on walking and public services when available. He used to fill his prescriptions at a local CVS. Sometimes he’d opt for “County” instead. Getting a refill for his inhaler at “County,” however, took three hours on his last visit. And though he preferred CVS to “County,” when CVS opened, a local independent pharmacy shutdown. Imagine his surprise and discomfort then when CVS also closed.

Mr. Arrington describes the series of closures as something of a mystery. “Everything here started closing and vanishing. Just poof — gone.”

When CVS closed they transferred prescriptions to another branch. This location stands an additional two miles from the one that closed. Traveling that distance by foot can be at best inconvenient, and at worst life-threatening for someone in Arrington’s position.

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