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Posted 10/14/14 (Tue)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

When North Dakota voters go to the poll in November, they are going to be asked to decide whether or not to repeal a state law that provides that all pharmacies in the state must be at least 51 percent owned by a pharmacist.
The big box stores (think Walmart and Target) and large chain drug stores (think Walgreens) are the push behind Measure No. 7. They want North Dakota’s current law, which has been in existence since 1963, thrown out so that they can open their own pharmacies in their own stores.
The argument for the passage of Measure No. 7, according to the proponents, is that it will bring lower prescription prices to North Dakota consumers.
Is Measure No. 7 good for North Dakotans as the proponents are saying? Or is it, as the opponents claim, just another move by corporate America to kill off small, private-owned businesses to gain control of the retail sales of drugs?
Let’s look take a quick look at the two issues of ownership and the cost of drugs.
First. The box stores and large chain pharmacies are completely wrong when they say that they can’t have a pharmacy in their stores under current North Dakota law. If their true desire is to have a pharmacy presence in North Dakota, they can have one. They simply have to lease space in their building to a pharmacist who owns 51 percent of the pharmacy. But so far, none of these big box stores have done so. Why? Because they can’t control the prices or control what happens in the pharmacy.
Second. Will Measure No. 7 bring lower prescription prices to North Dakotans? Probably not. If anything, North Dakotas, who currently pay less than the national average for their prescribed medicines, could very well see their drug costs go up. Competition is a wonderful thing when it comes to controlling prices. When there are several pharmacies in a community, consumers benefit because of the competition to keep costs low. If the big box stores are able to drive out the locally-owned competition, then they are free to set their prices at whatever level that they want.
But one of the other compelling questions that voters should ask themselves when they are considering which way they are going to vote on Measure No. 7 is, “who do they want to be standing behind the counter when they get their prescriptions?” Do they want to see a constantly changing staff of pharmacists that are often associated with chain stores? Or do they want to talk about their healthcare needs with the owner of the pharmacy? In other words, do you want to visit with someone who is concerned about your health as much as you are? Or are you satisfied with someone who is just filling the prescription?
There is a lot to be said about the value of small town businesses and small town business owners. And that is kind of lost in all of the discussion about Measure No. 7. Small town businesses pride themselves on quality of service and taking care of their customers. Customers to a small town business owner aren’t just numbers - they are neighbors and friends. Small town pharmacy owners, whether they are in places like Watford City or in the bigger cities of Fargo and Bismarck, where the competition from the big box stores is going to come from, are part of the glue that binds our state’s healthcare system together.
Bigger isn’t always better. Nor is sending all of the profits to another state, which happens when box stores or chain stores take out locally-owned businesses.
North Dakotans have been well-served by the state’s pharmacy ownership law. There is no need to change it.
Measure No. 7 deserves a “No” vote.