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Olson: Pharmacy law again targeted

There is a law in North Dakota that forces most people in the state to pay more for prescription medications.

North Dakota is the only state that mandates by statute that a pharmacy must be at least majority-owned – 51 percent or more – by a licensed pharmacist in good standing. This is why consumers who visit major national retail store chains such as Costco, Kmart, Target and the others in North Dakota aren’t able to find a pharmacy counter in those stores.

The pharmacy ownership law was written in 1963. It was sold to lawmakers as a means to prevent physicians from selling prescription drugs directly to their patients and, in so doing, to cut out the middleman of having the prescriptions filled at a pharmacy by a pharmacist. Unfortunately, in everyday practice, the law has instead stifled competition in the pharmaceutical industry in North Dakota; and it has afforded a big shield of protection to North Dakota’s independently owned pharmacies from any significant competition.

Local factor

I am not saying you should not patronize local merchants. If you are getting good service at a fair price from your hometown drugstore, then absolutely, you should keep your business there. Also, in fairness to the drugstores that are in business in North Dakota, the aforementioned generic prescription drug offers of the national retailers are indicative of when someone pays cash for their prescription and does not use prescription drug coverage. It is my understanding that when someone uses their prescription drug coverage card at most pharmacies, their copays are generally the same, whether they fill a prescription at a national store or at a local independently owned pharmacist.

It has been argued in the past that the wide variances in the retail prices of a medication between a national chain store pharmacy and a locally owned independent drugstore are sometimes noticeable.

But when you take a look at all the families that are moving to North Dakota from other parts of the country, where having such things as a pharmacy located in their favorite retail store is commonplace, their first impressions of North Dakota, I’m sure, are along the lines of, “Wow. I didn’t realize how backward this place really is!”

Forced to mail order

Many companies that offer health plans to their employees oftentimes have a list of preferred pharmacies which they’ve contracted with to offer their workers the best price available for their prescriptions. When those folks get to North Dakota and find the store that their company contracts with has no pharmacies, then they’re forced to go the mail order route. As we all know, everyone loses under the mail order scenario. All that money that could be staying here in North Dakota is forced to go out of state.

But isn’t it a little embarrassing for the people of our state to be looked upon as a laughingstock by the rest of the country because we have this anti-competitive, archaic law on the books? You see RVs parked in the parking lots of Sam’s Club, Walmart and others all the time – most of them bearing out-of-state license plates. I’m sure a day doesn’t go by when a tourist who is passing through North Dakota doesn’t discover they left their prescription medication at home. So they seek out the nearest retailer where they buy their prescriptions from and get into the store here in North Dakota to discover there is no pharmacy. Or if there is a pharmacy, in the case of the Walmart on 13th Avenue South in Fargo, to discover there is a pharmacy but it is not a Walmart-owned pharmacy. The leased-space pharmacy there isn’t able to seamlessly honor the out-of-state customer’s refill request because they don’t have access to the Walmart database. Those customers likely get referred either to the Sam’s Club in Moorhead or the Walmart in Dilworth, which both offer company-owned pharmacies where their prescriptions can be refilled seamlessly.

Much debated

This is an issue that has been much debated in North Dakota over the past five years or so. A group called North Dakotans for Affordable Healthcare sponsored two back-to-back initiated ballot measures to change the pharmacy ownership law. Both failed.

Another group, which calls itself North Dakotans for Lower Pharmacy Prices, is gathering petition signatures on a new proposed initiative. I’ve seen people collecting signatures outside of Walmart the past several weekends. If you are a North Dakota resident and see someone seeking signatures for the pharmacy ownership law initiative, I hope you sign the petition. The group needs to get some 13,500 signatures filed with the secretary of state by Aug. 6 in order for the measure to make it onto the ballot in the Nov. 4 general election this year. I wish them all the best.

Olson, of Fargo, is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary and opinion pages. E-mail