The national pharmaceutical company that serves numerous Kentucky public-sector employees might be dropping Walgreens as a drug provider beginning in January.
The end of service comes as a result of the drugstore chain and Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit management company, reaching an impasse in rate negotiations.
Walgreens, based in Deerfield, Ill., is America's largest drugstore chain; it has more than 90 stores in 46 Kentucky communities, including eight in Lexington.
Express Scripts customers would have to move their prescriptions to other drugstores and pharmacies. A Rite Aid in Hamburg was seen sporting a sign this week noting that it accepts Express Scripts patients, and Kroger, which operates pharmacies in its grocery stores, has run a television ad noting its availability for Express Scripts prescriptions.
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Express Scripts serves customers in Kentucky, including major employers such as the University of Kentucky and state government.
Express Scripts serves nearly 270,000 Kentucky Employees' Health Plan members, according to state figures. About 36,000 Kentucky health plan members now use a Walgreens pharmacy, but the state says that almost all of them have another pharmacy available fewer than 5 miles away.
At the end of November, Express Scripts will send letters to all Kentucky health plan members who use a Walgreens pharmacy. The letter will give the member three nearby pharmacy options to fill their prescriptions.
At UK, Express Scripts is the pharmaceutical benefits manager for 18,535 employees and retirees.
Lucy B. Wells, who administers prescription benefits for UK, said 10.9 percent of the members filling a prescription used a Walgreens in the 2010-11 plan year.
She said the UK benefits office has a mailing scheduled in the next week to inform employees and retirees of the potential loss of Walgreens from the network of pharmacies available to UK employees beginning Dec. 31. In addition, Express Scripts will be sending a letter to UK-related customers who have recently used a Walgreens.
"We're open to having Walgreens in our network, but only at rates that are competitive for our network," said Brian Henry, a spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Express Scripts.
Henry said Walgreens ended negotiations in June and has not sought to resume them. He said Walgreens' rates are as much as 20 percent higher than those of other pharmacies in the Express Scripts network, which he described as "out of line."
In October, Express Scripts said 95 percent of its prescription volume probably would continue in 2012 without Walgreens in its network.
Express Scripts said its customers still would be able to fill prescriptions at more than 56,000 pharmacies nationwide.
"It's as easy as taking your bottle there and saying, 'Please make a change,'" Henry said.
But Walgreens said that Express Scripts isn't fully valuing the benefit its company provides to customers.
"It boils down to, Express Scripts doesn't value the services that a community pharmacy provides," said Michael Polzin, a spokesman for Walgreens.
He said community pharmacists often see patients more often than doctors do and can help with "keeping patients healthier and keeping them out of the hospital."
"There's a value on that that goes just beyond the cost of the medication itself," Polzin said.
He said Walgreens operates more 24-hour pharmacies than all other chain drugstores in the nation combined.