From over the counter to over the county line: Understanding the 2019 Kemper County pharmacy crisis

Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 9:52 AM CDT
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DeKALB, Miss. (WTOK) - “It was like my life had ended with my medication because it was here when we needed it.”

Folks in one east Mississippi county weren’t sure what to do when the county’s only pharmacy went out of business.

J.L. White had been a customer at Fred’s for over 50 years.

“It was just a blow to the whole community. We were without a pharmacy for about two or three months,” said White.

“It was very inconvenient to have to travel 30 miles away to get your medicine,” said Kemper County Circuit Clerk Shirley Steele-Jackson.
Fred’s Pharmacy in DeKalb closed in late 2019. The Memphis-based company closed all its stores after filing for bankruptcy.
“What are we going to do? It’s a healthcare crisis.”
What would happen next? How and where would patients in Kemper County get their prescriptions filled? Those questions had many concerned.
“We were probably servicing somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000 folks here. We had people here in the county that were forced to travel 20, 30 miles to another pharmacy,” said Craig Hitt, director of the Kemper County Economic Development Authority.
Johnnie Rush was one of the people impacted. She said mail-in orders took weeks and the folks at Fred’s were like family.
“I was devastated because Fred’s was the only pharmacy we had in Kemper, and when it closed, I was trying to figure out where I was going to get my medication from because I have to drive so far to get it,” said Rush.
Roy Vandevender says his late father, Waldo, ran Fred’s for generations. The closing was like losing a loved one.
“It was like a death in the family. It really means a lot to us; we literally grew up in the drug store”, said Vandevender.
Vandevender says his customers weren’t used to the big chain pharmacies
“I was really amazed at how many people were almost scared to go to other pharmacies. They’d never been to the big chains and I found myself talking to some of the chains and saying, ‘hey if you see somebody standing out there like they don’t seem to know what they’re supposed to do, approach them and say let me help you’,” Vandevender said.
Fortunately, county leaders and the state board of pharmacy worked quickly to solve the problem. They were able to bring in a new pharmacy to serve the needs of the community.
George Salem is the president/CEO of ProxsysRx. The company serves small, rural communities across the country.
“They’re part of the community, and that was an important factor for us,” said Salem. “They need the medications just like anybody else.”
Salem understands the family-operated business model. He wanted to do all he can to make sure the folks in Kemper didn’t feel abandoned.
“So we connected directly with the hospital here and immediately struck up an arrangement. Under normal circumstances, it can take 6 months or more to establish a new pharmacy but we were up and running within 60 days of the Fred’s closing,” said Salem.
Just like that, the Stennis Community Pharmacy was up and running, and patients were relieved.
“We invested in this community. We’re going to continue to invest in this community because we think there’s more opportunity to offer more for the residents here,” said Salem.
The Fred’s closing showed just how important local businesses are to a community.
Vandevender says part of being a pharmacist is understanding your customers.
“Part of being a pharmacist or anybody in healthcare, is you need to be able to understand the situation the other person’s in. You need to have empathy for them. Now when someone says I’ve lost my health insurance, we understand those feelings and those restless nights.”

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