Gary officials demand answers for pharmacy closings

By Erica Irish
TheStatehouseFile.com

 INDIANAPOLIS — For some 80,000 residents of Gary, Indiana, access to medicine is becoming an everyday struggle.

Karen Freeman Wilson, the city’s mayor, said this is because three different Walgreens pharmacies and one Fagen pharmacy have closed without warning over the past three years.

Karen Freeman Wilson, mayor of the city of Gary, tells lawmakers on the House Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee Tuesday that her citizens need answers to sudden pharmacy closings. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com.

“This is an issue, and we don’t really know why,” Wilson said.

Now, only a single Walgreens is left standing. But, because it is planted in the heart of the city, many citizens living on the outskirts of Gary must travel to fill prescriptions. Not all citizens have access to their own cars, so many must wait for city buses.

“We have seniors who literally have to travel on the bus an hour and a half, if they use public transit,” Wilson said.

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, is demanding answers to this phenomenon.

“It has a tremendous negative impact on our community,” Brown said about the situation in his hometown. “My only request is that we look at this issue. It’s northwest Indiana today, but it could be yours tomorrow.”

The lawmaker presented House Bill 1382 to the House Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee Tuesday to establish a study committee to explain why pharmacies are leaving areas like Gary.

“I would like to have this study done to determine what can be done to prevent this, or what can be done to ensure these persons get life-saving prescriptions filled in a timely manner,” Brown said.

The problem has worsened because larger companies, like CVS, have purchased family-owned area pharmacies and closed them down, Brown added.

Rebecca Wyatt, a city councilwoman in Gary’s eastern communities, doubts larger companies are pulling out to save money.

The city is investing more in areas like Miller Beach, a lakefront community in Wilson’s district that saw its last CVS-owned Fagen pharmacy close in late 2017.

“We need to know what the reason is so we can fix it,” Wyatt said.

Two Fagen pharmacies are still open, Wilson said. Each location, however, is not close to some of Gary’s communities in need, and neither pharmacy uses mail-order systems.

Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Merrillville, suggested that big brand pharmacy companies should be required to comply with rules like those outlined in the federal Community Reinvestment Act.

Rebecca Wyatt, councilwoman to Gary’s eastern communities, testifies at a House Family, Children and Human Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday. Wyatt said her area of the city was hit hard as pharmacies closed without warning. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com.

The 1977 measure calls on banks to meet the credit needs of the communities they represent, ensuring low-income people have opportunities.

Rep. Richard Hamm, R-Richmond, asked why citizens in pharmacy deserts couldn’t use mail-order prescriptions.

For most, particularly older citizens, mail-order prescriptions have yet to gain popularity, Brown said. Some locations, such as the two remaining Fagen pharmacies, don’t offer the service in the first place.

Wilson reminded legislators to also consider the role of food shortages in communities.

“I think it’s extremely important to have both of these issues front and center, not just to see what the problem is but to really work together to determine what the solution is,” she said.

Brown’s original bill included the study of food deserts, or areas in which there is no grocery within a mile of at least a third of the population.

Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, amended HB 1382 to only include pharmacy deserts in the study. He noted that Senate Bill 232 addresses the issue of food deserts and is gaining momentum.

Senators passed the bill, authored by Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, 46-3 last Tuesday. If passed, SB 232 would create a program to provide communities with nutritious food.

Brown’s bill passed the House committee by a 7-0 vote.

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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