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County lagging in hiring of druggists
Stroger Hospital has 12 positions vacant

Friday, May 27, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Charles Sheehan

The number of prescriptions filled at Stroger Hospital, which provides the vast majority of services in Cook County for those without insurance, jumped by more than 31 percent last year to nearly 3 million, according to the county Bureau of Health Services.

And it's becoming harder for the county to fill those orders because the hot job market for pharmacists is luring new graduates away to retail chains and big-box stores, which offer signing bonuses, store discounts and other perks.

Though 12 of 26 positions are currently vacant at Stroger, the people who are recruiting pharmacists say the response to salary offers from the county is often the click of a phone.

This comes with Cook County on pace to fill a half million more prescriptions in 2005 than were filled last year, said Dr. Daniel Winship, chief of the Bureau of Health Sciences.

"That's an astronomical number of prescriptions," he said.

Winship testified Thursday during an emergency meeting of the Cook County Stroger & Cermak Hospitals subcommittee called by Commissioner Roberto Maldonado.

Maldonado said he was surprised to learn patients were waiting days for prescription drugs and that hourslong lines formed outside clinics.

"It is highly unfair to treat our patients with such indignity," he said.

Bureau of Health Sciences officials said a new mail-order program for prescription drugs is performing better than expected and that when new pharmacists are hired, service at the county's outpatient prescription offices will improve.

Yet with budgets stretched tight, county health officials said it is increasingly difficult to remain competitive in a very fluid market for pharmacists.

Starting annual salaries averaged more than $80,000 for pharmacists last year, more than $41 per hour, according to industry groups. That's not including bonuses or other perks.

A first-year pharmacist at Cook County can expect $70,694, or about $33.98 per hour, according to Dan Martin, Winship's chief of staff.

Salaries top out at just over $86,000 per year for pharmacists in Cook County, which is below the average salary for pharmacists nationwide even when starting salaries are averaged in, according to industry groups.

Trying to hire experienced help is almost impossible, county officials said.

The county cap for new hires, regardless of experience, is set at the five-year pay scale of $78,255, Martin said.

And the work pace can be frantic.

A pharmacist with two technicians at Stroger is completing about 400 orders per shift, compared with about 250 orders per shift in the retail industry, county officials said.

One of the reasons for the increase in prescriptions, according to Winship, is the changing face of those seeking them from the county.

More people are losing health insurance and turning to the county for help, he said.

The increase in prescriptions can also be attributed to a rise in outpatient care, an aging population and more prescription drugs on the market, health officials said.

The Bureau of Health Services has 16 people now visiting clinics to raise awareness of the prescription mail-order service offered by the county, and there is a notification in each prescription filled that the service exists.

The county also may shift current staffing from one pharmacist and two lower-paid technicians, to a ratio of one to four, Winship said.

A pharmacist is required by law to verify the script from doctors and to ensure that the orders leaving through the windows are correct, Martin said.

The Bureau of Health Services is also trying to use increased automation and contracting for prepackaged pharmaceuticals to cut down on the time it takes to fill orders.

But commissioners on the subcommittee were doubtful that any of the proposed solutions would end the long lines outside county clinics.

"Why do we fool ourselves into thinking we will ever be able to fill this voluminous need?" Commissioner Peter Silvestri said.

If the county can fill the vacancies for pharmacists, Winship said, the Bureau of Health Services would be able to provide a better idea of what more can be done.




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