March 2009

Stephens Pharmacy

Author: Ann DeMart | Photographer: photography by anne

If you’ve been to the Health & Wellness Center at 2 Marshland Road, you’ve probably discovered Stephens Pharmacy, the independent pharmacy that could be mistaken for an extension of the physicians’ offices. If not, you might want to visit the shop, which pharmacist and owner Jerry Stephens calls “a small pharmacy with a big heart.” Stephens Pharmacy is the opposite of the ubiquitous national drugstore chains, which have become mini versions of large discount stores, selling everything from appliances to lawn chairs. This is a traditional pharmacy, where the business is focused on dispensing prescriptions, professional advice and neighborly conversation.

When Stephens and his wife, Sheila, opened the pharmacy nearly six years ago, they knew from the start that they wanted to offer island customers personal service. The couple moved to the Hilton Head area from a small town in Kentucky, where Stephens’ grandmother and great aunt had a country store. “>From the time I could walk, I spent time in that store watching how they did business. They knew every customer and helped each one find exactly what he or she needed,” he said. “The work model that I saw as a child became part of our service standard. We know almost everyone who walks through the door here. We usually know what they’re coming for, and a lot of them come for advice.” A young woman recently told Stephens that she had never had a pharmacist who would sit and talk with her. He believes that this level of service is still important.

“I heard a motivational speaker say that Nolan Ryan threw his fastball more than 90 percent of the time. That’s what he had success with, and that’s what he did best,” Stephens said. “We should all do what we do best. Prescriptions are what we do best. Interestingly, the big national chain pharmacies get most of their revenue from the pharmacy department, but they sell things like motor oil and cigarettes to bring in the customers for their pharmacy. I find it offensive that a business that’s paid by the federal government to fill prescriptions would sell cigarettes, which are responsible for so many of the diseases being treated by the medications. We’re not willing to do that. I feel like the public needs a choice,” he said.

“I believe in giving everybody a fair price. What’s interesting is that more than 85 percent of all prescriptions at one national chain drugstore involve an insurance card, which often drives up the cost of the medication. At the chains, different customers get different rates, based on their insurance company or status. At Stephens, more than 30 percent of our customers are cash customers. Why? Our prices are extremely competitive. A lot of people ask me how I can compete with the big chains. It’s simple. I control expenses by having a smaller store, smaller staff and smaller rent. I don’t have to pay for district managers, regional managers or corporate jets. I don’t fill every prescription on the island, but that’s not my goal. My goal is to provide fast, friendly, professional service. We have two fantastic pharmacist technicians, Dotty Webb and Lou Ann Liggett, who help us do that. We have four rocking chairs in the waiting room, and we say that you can wait in our rocking chairs but not for long. Rarely does it take longer than a few minutes to fill a script. That’s especially important for people who are sick or in pain.”

Stephens feels that the public should be aware of the downside of mail order pharmacies. “It’s a myth that mail order pharmacies are a good value,” he said. “The amount of money that a customer can save over the long term is minimal, and it is important for patients to fill their prescriptions locally for several reasons. Mail delivery of prescriptions doesn’t allow for any clinical interaction. For instance, I noticed that one patient was having a side effect that was common to the medication she was on. I recommended that she see her physician, which she did. We probably saved her thousands of dollars in hospital services. Only a pharmacist who knows you and the medications you’re taking can do that. It’s also important to support local pharmacies, so that they’ll be available for emergencies. If your life depended on getting a script today or tomorrow, could your mail order pharmacy come through? The answer is no,” Stephens said. “A mail order pharmacy could never meet that need.”

Stephens shared his opinions about the nation’s healthcare system. “I see things in healthcare that just aren’t reasonable,” he explained. “People talk about the cost of medications. But pharmacy costs are less than 15 percent of healthcare costs today. Administrative costs make up over 30 percent of costs. If we could reduce these administrative costs, we could probably save one-third of all we’re spending today. The insurance industry isn’t going to let that happen.” He pointed out the costs that insurance companies create, citing endorsement fees and marketing in addition to administrative costs.

“I think we should have ‘birth to death’ health insurance with a lifetime spending limit from a single source,” he said. “If you were spending from your own account, rather than from an insurance company, and you could pass along the unspent amount as a tax-free inheritance, I think a lot of wasteful healthcare expenses would be eliminated. I believe utilization would drop dramatically and that free enterprise among providers would encourage competition and competitive prices.”

Just as we were winding down our conversation, the phone rang. Jerry answered with his traditional upbeat greeting: “It’s a great day at Stephens Pharmacy,” and just like that, he was doing what he does best: taking care of people.

There must be a “pharmacist gene” in Stephens’ family. His wife, Sheila, is a pharmacist at Summit Cancer Care Center in Savannah; daughter Elizabeth is in pharmacy school. Son Spencer and his wife Jennifer are also pharmacists and will be opening a Stephens Pharmacy in Alabama this month. Stephens is actively looking for a pharmacist to help open a Stephens Pharmacy in the Bluffton area in the near future.

Visit Stephens Pharmacy at the Health and Wellness Center, 2 Marshland Road, Hilton Head Island or call (843) 686-3735 for more information.

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