Last updated: February 16. 2013 3:35PM - 303 Views

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George Bedwick has the hippo-shaped coin banks, statues of saints and antique wooden phone booth (if you‚??re willing to hunt for it).

Dominic Fino boasts a wicked spiral staircase in the back that leads to a room where you can learn ferrets like the taste of raspberry and reptiles favor lemon custard.

And Bruce Lefkowitz? Well, he‚??s got Sugar.

The dog, not the sucrose.

‚??I like the dog!‚?Ě Harry Messersmith quipped with a wry grin when asked why he has stuck with Harrold‚??s Pharmacy for 45 years, even as the big chains (Walgreen‚??s, Rite Aid) and big box stores (Walmart, Target) bulldoze into town and bullhorn deals to make a bargain hunter salivate.

And yes, the utterly disarming and hopelessly charming golden lab is a heck of a draw, eager to cozy up to any customer who even absent-mindedly puts a petting hand within snout‚??s reach.

But unless Sugar found the fountain of youth buried in Harrold‚??s back room, she can‚??t be the reason the pharmacy threw a big 65th anniversary bash Saturday.

And she most certainly isn‚??t the reason independent pharmacies continue to survive throughout Luzerne County in an era of growing competition from big-budget corporations and shrinking profits from reduced insurance reimbursements.

No, ask an independent owner or a long-time satisfied customer how these stores endure and you‚??re almost sure to get an answer akin to the sentiment of Chris Bedwick, wife and store-mate of George, the owner of Bedwick‚??s Pharmacy.

‚??We‚??re part of the community,‚?Ě she said. ‚??We‚??re the little corner drug store.‚?Ě

She pauses, and realizes she missed a vital bit ‚?? the part that she, being a non-pharmacist, is responsible for.

‚??We‚??re the little corner drug store and gift shop.‚?Ě

Knowing the customers

It‚??s a sentiment Messersmith echoes without prompting after picking up his prescription at Harrold‚??s on Old River Road in Wilkes-Barre. ‚??I know these people. They know me. I installed the electricity in this building.‚?Ě

Moe Schonfield, who has been patronizing Harrold‚??s almost since the day it opened, similarly boasts of doing the plumbing at the store, though at one month shy of 86, he won‚??t be fitting pipes in the pharmacy‚??s new location up the street in what used to be Old River Road Bakery.

At Fino‚??s in Dallas you don‚??t even have to ask. Dominic Jr. appears behind the counter and, faster than you can down a vitamin, he‚??s talking with a customer about a shooting range the customer is building.

Five feet away, Dominic Sr. can‚??t get a word out before a woman asks ‚??How‚??s Ruth? I hardly ever see her.‚?Ě

Let the chit chat commence.

‚??You‚??re not just a customer, you‚??re family,‚?Ě 30-year Fino‚??s patron Paulette Bent said.

She recounted times she needed medicines after hours and one of the Finos returned to the store to help, or brought the medicine to her house. They also were willing to order a single bottle of something they didn‚??t stock.

‚??They really have gone more than the extra mile,‚?Ě Bent said. ‚??Even when my parents passed away, they sent flowers. They didn‚??t have to do that.‚?Ě

George Bedwick‚??s sports figurines displayed behind the counter (‚??They are not for sale!‚?Ě he intones before being asked) can spark long conversation.

‚??People spend more time talking to me about sports than it takes to fill their prescriptions,‚?Ě said.

Bedwick‚??s also sponsors a Little League team and a booth at the annual fund-raising bazaar at St. Nicholas Church ‚?? spin the wheel, hit your number and win ... well, some sort of sports memorabilia, of course.

‚??When people come in they say ‚??Hi, George,‚?? and George calls them by name,‚?Ě Chris Bedwick said. ‚??A lot of times when people come in they run into someone they know, they start to talk. It‚??s pleasant.‚?Ě

Chains just competition

To an outsider, the big threat to independent pharmacies may appear to be the chains muscling in or the big boxes plugging pharmacy sections between groceries and paper goods.

Not true, all three pharmacists said.

‚??I can compete with the chains,‚?Ě George Bedwick said. ‚??I can beat any price, I know what I paid and I know what insurances will pay.‚?Ě

‚??Chains are good, healthy competition,‚?Ě Dominic Fino Jr. said. ‚??Our biggest problem is with the insurance companies. They are the ones that force our customers either to go to mail order or to a chain that has made a deal with the insurance company.‚?Ě

Wilkes University Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice Adam Welch agreed.

‚??A lot of the Pharmacy Benefit Management (PBM) companies are sending the patients to the mail order system,‚?Ě Welch said. This is particularly common with patients who take ‚??maintenance‚?Ě meds for chronic conditions ‚?? heart disease and high blood pressure, for example.

If the patient gets three months of a prescription mail order, the PBM may offer a discount ‚?? two monthly deductibles instead of three, he said.

‚??That‚??s a huge portion of a pharmacist‚??s patient load going to mail order,‚?Ě Welch said.

And the practice can raise eyebrows when the PBM also owns the mail-order operation the patient is forced to use.

How can the PBM offer to cut one co-pay out for the mail order, but not for the independent pharmacist?

‚??There‚??s not enough transparency to answer that,‚?Ě Welch said. There‚??s no way to compare how much a person or employer pays into insurance to how much the insurance company is paying out for a prescription.‚?Ě

Legislation has been proposed at both the state and federal levels to make the system fairer for all pharmacists. Welch noted a proposal in Harrisburg would give patients the choice to get the same insurance benefits for ordering three months of medicine from any outlet ‚?? mail, chain or independent pharmacy.

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, introduced H.R. 1946 in Washington, which would let independent pharmacies negotiate with PBMs collectively for better terms.

In the meantime, independents ‚??are forced to find a market niche where they are offering a product or service not available at the chains,‚?Ě Welch said. ‚??Immunization, compounding, home delivery, things that set them apart. They try to be different while still offering that core service.‚?Ě

Listening proves vital

So you have Sugar to greet you at Harrold‚??s, where you also can get special topical, infusion or oral drugs compounded (for yourself or a pet). You also get to sit one-on-one to consult with a pharmacist.

‚??We survive by listening to our customers, being sensitive to the market and changing with the times,‚?Ě Lefkowitz said. In three generations, the store shifted from filling scripts and mixing malteds to compounding special items and ‚??trying to get the total picture as a health care provider working with the doctor and the patient.‚?Ě

Fino‚??s does compounding for humans and pets as well, which is why the upstairs room has that chart telling what flavors different animals prefer.

They even offer what their website calls ‚??triple fish suspension‚?Ě for cats, a combination of three different fish pureed together to hide the bitter taste of some medicines.

‚??I can‚??t see any bitterness getting through that,‚?Ě Dominic Fino Jr. said with a chuckle, noting that when he borrowed the family blender to make the concoction, his wife told him not to bring it back.

And while Bedwick‚??s doesn‚??t do compounding, it does offer a wide array of offbeat items Chris Bedwick finds from numerous vendors, including old-fashioned candy, cleverly shaped coin banks and trinket containers, and lots of religious iconography.

Diocese Guild offerings

They always carried a few such items, but increased stock substantially when the Diocese of Scranton closed the Wilkes-Barre branch of its ‚??Guild‚?Ě store in 2001. The Guild has long been the definitive source for religious items among Roman Catholics, and Bedwick‚??s helped fill the vacuum in Wilkes-Barre.

‚??We even have people who come in to buy religious items and ask ‚??Oh, do you fill prescriptions as well?‚?? ‚?Ě Chris Bedwick said with a smile.

And if they can inspire enough people to stay as loyal as Paulette Bent, they should survive just fine.

‚??Other stores try to offer me deals, get me to go through the mail. I don‚??t want to go through the mail. When my husband needs his medicine he needs his medicine,‚?Ě Bent said.

And if sticking with Fino‚??s costs a little more, so be it.

‚??I would just as soon give them a few extra bucks because I don‚??t want them to close their doors. I know once that happens, they‚??re gone,‚?Ě Bent said.

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