Batson’s Drug Store seems like a throwback to a simpler time. The independently owned pharmacy in Howard, Kansas, still runs an old-fashioned soda counter and hand-dips ice cream. But the drugstore, the only one in the entire county, teeters on the edge between nostalgia and extinction.
Julie Perkins, pharmacist and owner of Batson’s, graduated from the local high school and returned after pharmacy school to buy the drugstore more than two decades ago. She and her husband bought the grocery store next door in 2006 to help diversify revenue and put the pharmacy on firmer footing.
But with the pandemic exacerbating the competitive pressures from large retail chains, which can operate at lower prices, and from pharmaceutical intermediaries, which can impose high fees retroactively, Perkins wonders how long her business can remain viable.
She worries about what will happen to her customers if she can’t keep the pharmacy running. Elk County, with a population of 2,500, has no hospital and only a couple of doctors, so residents must travel more than an hour to Wichita for anything beyond primary care.
“That’s why I hang on,” Perkins said. “These people have relied on the store from way before I was even here.”
Corner pharmacies, once widespread in large cities and rural hamlets alike, are disappearing from many areas of the country, leaving an estimated 41 million Americans in what are known as drugstore deserts, without easy access to pharmacies. An analysis by GoodRx, an online drug price comparison tool, found that 12% of Americans have to drive more than 15 minutes to reach the closest pharmacy or don’t have enough pharmacies nearby to meet demand. That includes majorities of people in more than 40% of counties.
From 2003 to 2018, 1,231 of the nation’s 7,624 independent rural pharmacies closed, according to the University of Iowa’s Rural Policy Research Institute, leaving 630 communities with no independent or chain retail drugstore.