In an era when independent pharmacies are closing and big-name chains are popping up on every corner, the opening of a new independent pharmacy in Clovis is unusual.
Script Life Pharmacy has opened on the grounds of the Peachwood Medical Group's property at Herndon and Villa avenues.
"That's the first independent that has been built in Fresno in probably 40 years," said Paul Rohrer, chief executive of the Fresno-based Professional Pharmacy Alliance of California, a group representing Central California pharmacies.
Script Life pharmacist and owner Khoa Huynh spent eight years as a Walgreens pharmacist, including working as a district supervisor in Fresno.
Not happy with the service offered by chains, he opened Script Life two months ago.
Huynh knows he has challenges ahead of him. Independent pharmacies face competition from $4 prescriptions offered by Target and Walmart and chain pharmacies with huge marketing budgets. Reimbursement rates from Medi-Cal are so low that independent pharmacies sometimes make mere cents -- or even lose money -- on a prescription. And delayed payments from insurance companies and the government make keeping a healthy cash flow difficult.
Last year, about 15 independent pharmacies from Merced to Visalia sold their patient records to chains and closed their doors, Rohrer said.
Nationwide, about 590 independent pharmacies either closed outright or transferred their records to other pharmacies, but the bloodletting that happened in the 1980s and 1990s has slowed, said John Norton, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Community Pharmacists Association.
Despite the challenges, Huynh said he thinks he can succeed.
"We can't compete on price. We want to compete on service," he said. "The way I saw it was that service has just gotten really terrible with chain pharmacies."
Script Life offers some services that chains typically don't. They include compounding, making drugs in unusual dosages or other forms.
That service is already coming in handy as a manufacturer's shortage of thyroid medication Armour Thyroid pills has left many pharmacies without the medication. Script Life is putting a powder form of the medication into capsules and selling it.
The pharmacy employs two pharmacists, including Huynh, two technicians and two clerks.
Huynh said he designed the business with customers in mind, including using large bottles with easy-grip tops for elderly patients and keeping prescriptions under the counter instead of in view of other patients.
Still, Huynh faces an uphill battle with the larger pharmacies.
Despite networks that allow independent pharmacies to bargain with wholesalers and insurance companies, they still compete against national heavy-hitting chain pharmacies such as CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens.
Such stores accounted for 41% of prescription sales, compared with 17% for independents in 2008, the most recent statistics available from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
And within 1.3 miles of Script Life, there are five pharmacies, including those at grocery and discount stores.
Script Life's location on the same grounds as a medical practice will help Huynh compete, he and others say.
Script Life leases space in a newly built building owned by an entity related to the medical group. The pharmacy is steps away from Peachwood's offices that house pediatricians, family and internal medicine doctors, a lab and urgent care, skin and allergy centers.
"That's where the independents need to be, next to medical facilities," Rohrer said.
Location has helped Winton's Professional Pharmacy, which patients must pass when entering Saint Agnes Medical Center via Herndon Avenue.
"It's a tremendous advantage being in the vicinity of a hospital or a medical group, especially if that hospital or medical group will support you," said Michael Winton, vice president of a company that runs two Fresno pharmacies.
Although making it as an independent pharmacy is still difficult, Rohrer said he's beginning to see some changes in their favor.
Rohrer said that of the 78 pharmacies the alliance represents, he's seen about a 10% increase in prescriptions since this time last year.
As a whole, the gross sales of those pharmacies are up between 10% and 15%, though because reimbursements are low net sales are down, he said.
They may be small changes, but Rohrer said it's proof that customers like independently owned pharmacies.
"There is a movement of people that are tired of the big box pharmacy," he said. "They're tired of being just a number."