My journey began innocently enough, I was on vacation and discovered I was running out of a prescription allergy medicine.
There was a local CVS nearby, so I called to see if they could find my prescription in their system. I knew that CVS had 9,000 retail locations, and I had heard that roughly 85% of Americans live within five miles of a CVS pharmacy. So I expected this would be easy.
That’s when the trip down the rabbit hole of pharmacy hell began.
I called the nearest CVS, asked the voice prompt to connect me with the pharmacy, and after a 10-minute wait on hold, the call was picked up.
“Yes” the voice barked.
“I’d like to see if you have my medication on file. I’m on vacation, and need a refill,” I explained politely.
“Why don’t you just go home and get it?” the voice shot back. I was taken aback.
The conversation continued like that, with the pharmacist blaming me, suggesting I call my doctor (it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend), and basically telling me to piss off.
I hung up, thinking “Maybe I just got someone on a bad day.” I went on Google Maps to look for another CVS. What I found shocked me: Every pharmacy near me had terrible reviews, each one worse than the one before. Long wait times, rude pharmacy employees, and combative conversations. Here’s a quick sample:
“If I could give the pharmacy 0 stars, I would.“
“Terrible service, cruel and unusual to make sick people waste gas driving to pick up what is in fact not filled at a closed pharmacy and then return the following day to be laughed at by the 13 year old at the window when asked why an hour after opening it is still not filled. “
“I have cancer and just had a major surgery they called my surgeon told him I couldn't have the meds he prescribed me then lied to me and said my dr stopped them after talking with both of my drs and confronting them in their lie they said I cant talked you and hung up on me.“
“Had an appt for a drive-up covid test. When we arrived the drive-thru window was closed.“
“Pharmacist gave my daughter misinformation earlier today and didn't have her script in stock (she drove 45min) then wouldn't help her.“
I’m a reporter. So I immediately I wanted to know, why are these employees so angry? And what is the company that puts them in between patients in need and their medications?
CVS is the most profitable retail pharmacy in the U.S., with a whopping $104.57 billion in net worth, more than three times larger than its closest competitor Walgreens/Duane Reade at $30.52 billion.
What is CVS doing about the slew of unhappy employees and unhappy customers? It’s firing employees and cutting staff. CVS Health is eliminating about 5,000 jobs in an effort to reduce costs.
So, with my experience, and the comments on Google, I went in search of what was happening to the voices from behind the counter. The conversations on reddit.com/r/CVS/ are absolutely shocking.
Here are just a few of them:
“After working at other pharmacies, CVS is just hell. Not only is every store purposely understaffed to the point where it's not safe, it also just neglects healthcare. Patients don't even get the basic necessities of health care at cvs =It's truly disgusting,”
“I have been working as a pharmacy tech for the last 2.7 months. Immediately the first thing I noticed was how hostile of a work environment the pharmacy is, lots of gossip, childish sabotage, bullying, etc. The customers in my area are rude, but where aren’t they?”
“I just started at CVS and yes, it sucks and I don't plan to stay but what's with the social media restrictions? I had to complete about a million of those idiotic modules and never saw anything about social media with the exception of the obvious: don't take selfies at work. So if they expect us to be silenced, f*ck 'em: there's a little thing called the CONSTITUTION that allows me to voice my opinions.”
“I've had customers yell at me and tell me how unacceptable it is for us not to have everything perfect 100% of the time. I'm 19 years old. I'm human. I'm a college student. I'm trying to survive. We have a corner of the pharmacy with tissue boxes and chocolate dedicated for the inevitable mental breakdowns that will come during our shifts.”
So, where are we? CVS is massive and growing. Employees are angry at the company, the management, and the customers. Consumers who need their often life-saving medications are bounced between CVS, the dreaded “consultation” window, their doctor's office, and their insurance company. Each one blames the other. And an endless stream of emails, texts, and voicemail messages don’t make it any better.
It turns out, the Federal Trade Commission has taken notice of CVS’s growing control over pharmacy benefit managers. “Although many people have never heard of [them], these powerful middlemen have enormous influence over the U.S. prescription drug system,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said in a statement introducing an investigation that “will shine a light on these companies’ practices and their impact on pharmacies, payers, doctors, and patients.”
These actions suggest that Khan is open to challenging health care consolidation as well as readying for future actions against PBMs. But the larger question is this: Do the profits at CVS come at a cost for employees, pharmacists, and consumers?