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Industry trends leave owner wondering if Fairhaven Pharmacy will survive

Rob Johansen got his start in the pharmacy business in 1964 when Gordon Tweit, the owner of Fairhaven Pharmacy, hired him to deliver prescriptions to nursing homes and other customers.

Johansen worked part time at the pharmacy through high school and college   making deliveries, stocking shelves and sweeping the floor. He stayed on after graduating from pharmacy school at the University of Washington in 1970, then bought the business from Tweit in 1991.

“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” Johansen said, “other than picking strawberries and raspberries.”

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Fairhaven Pharmacy and its predecessor business. D.P. Mason Drug was established in 1889 and soon evolved into Fairhaven Pharmacy. The business was located in a couple of south Bellingham locations before owner George Finnegan had the pharmacy’s current home at 12th Street and Harris Avenue built in 1929.

Johansen, 67 and eyeing retirement, now wonders whether a younger pharmacist will step forward to keep the business going. Johansen said he thoroughly enjoyed being a pharmacist his first couple of decades, but since then the job has increasingly become more drudgery than dream job.

The problem, he says, isn’t competition from chain drugstores. Rather, the headache of dealing with pharmacy benefit managers — outfits that process prescription requests on behalf of insurance companies — has left Johansen weary and discouraged.

“It’s hassles from the time I open to when I lock up at night,” he said. “I’m just tired and burned out.”

On top of that, he said, the cost of drugs is going up, sometimes shockingly so, but the rate at which pharmacists are reimbursed doesn’t keep pace.

“Many times I’m filling prescriptions for less than what it costs me,” Johansen said.

Decades ago, he said, customers paid for prescriptions out of pocket until they reached their deductible, then the insurance company took over. In those earlier times, Johansen ran ads in the newspaper and on the radio promoting his pharmacy. He doesn’t bother anymore.

“If a person has insurance and I don’t accept it, it doesn’t matter how much I advertise,” he said.

Now, pharmacy benefit managers act as industry go-betweens, checking whether prescribed drugs are on an insurance company’s list of approved drugs, and reimbursing pharmacists. Johansen said the process has become increasingly time-consuming, with reimbursements lagging behind costs.

“It makes life miserable,” he said.

Even the price of some generic drugs has skyrocketed. Johansen cited the antibiotic doxycycline as a glaring example. A year ago, a bottle of 500 tablets cost pharmacies $20, according to a recent story in The New York Times. Last April, the price for a bottle soared to $1,849. Congressional committees are investigating.

Industry changes have contributed to the closure of at least 20 local independent pharmacies over the past 25 years, by Johansen’s tally, with four independents still open in Bellingham and a small handful elsewhere in the county. He says the trend leaves most people without access to a pharmacist with long-running ties to customers and their families.

“A pharmacist used to be second in respect only to the clergy,” he said.

Many independents that close sell their inventory and customer files to chain drugstores. Whether that fate awaits Fairhaven Pharmacy remains uncertain.

“The writing on the wall is not good for independents,” Johansen said. “I don’t know what the future holds.”