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Independent pharmacies expanding access to fast COVID tests

Marbry Gansle of Loudonville waits outside the Central Ave. Pharmacy for her COVID-19 test results on Monday in Albany. Gansle returned from a trip to Florida and needed to get tested now that she is back in New York state. Gansle came to the Central Ave. Pharmacy because she could get results the same day. (Times Union — Paul Buckowski)

ALBANY — Most mornings, 70 to 80 people stand in line outside Central Ave Pharmacy waiting to get a COVID-19 rapid test, and get the results 15 minutes later.

The pharmacy is one of the only places in the city offering walk-in, free-of-charge, rapid tests. They only offer 100 tests a day, and every day all 100 are administered. By 11 in the morning, the 100 testing slots are filled.

“I can’t just keep waiting (for a result). I need to know to get back to work,” Dustin Mackinnon said on Tuesday morning after waiting in line for an hour and 20 minutes.

“If you wake up sick and call around to all these different places to try to get in somewhere, and they’re scheduling you seven days out, that doesn’t do much for you when you are sick today,” said Sarah Walton, the director of pharmacy operations at Central Ave Pharmacy.

That’s why Walton felt it was important to offer a rapid test, instead of a PCR test — the nasal swab test that most CVS and Walgreens stores offer in the area.

“We are in a low income, high minority, high Medicaid, dual-eligible community. A lot of our people here don’t have vehicles. A lot of our people here don’t have access to computers or any other way to submit a request online for an appointment for a test,” Walton said, pointing out that most testing sites in the area are either drive through or appointment-based.

Lincoln Pharmacy, an independent pharmacy located on Morton Avenue, also offers rapid tests, but by appointment only.

For both independent pharmacists, serving their community and making testing more accessible is their first priority, but close behind it is the new opportunity it has created for them professionally.

The ability to offer rapid tests was the first of its kind for independent pharmacies in New York state. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order in April allowing independent pharmacists to offer point-of-care tests, such as the test for strep throat, flu, and now COVID-19.

“I had to do that to further my profession,” said Zarina Jalal, the supervising pharmacist of Lincoln Pharmacy. “That opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.”

But until a new program through the state’s Department of Health started in October that provides pharmacies with Abbott’s antigen test, small pharmacies like Central Ave Pharmacy and Lincoln Pharmacy were out of luck.

“There were only about five different tests that were approved for us to use in New York state at the pharmacy levels and all of those were not selling to smaller purchasers so we weren’t able to get in on any of them,” said Walton, who had wanted to start offering testing much earlier than October.

So far only three pharmacies in the Capital Region have received tests from the Department of Health’s program, according to Erin Silk, a spokesperson for the department. But Jalal, who is a participating pharmacist of CPESN, an association of community pharmacies, says more pharmacies will soon be offering rapid tests too.

“I think a lot of it is just the same challenges that I’ve run into when it comes to safety and payment. A lot of that is really overwhelming,” Jalal said. “We are all just trying to figure out a way that we can make it run viably and also safely.”

Though the pharmacy gets the tests from the state for free, the administration work, especially reporting the results to the county and the state, is time consuming. Purchasing personal protective equipment for staff is another cost. And the biggest cost of all for pharmacists is putting themselves and their staff at risk every day, as well as taking on the burden of counseling everyone who tests positive.

Lincoln Pharmacy charges $90 for the rapid test. Some insurance plans cover that charge, but not all, so Jalal needs to make sure she’s paid up-front by the patient no matter what.

“I have close to 30 or 35 claims for tests that these [insurance] companies say should be covered as a pharmacy benefit through their prescription drug coverage, but it is not going through,” Jalal said.

At Central Ave Pharmacy there is no charge for the patient, but it means the administration cost for about 70 percent of Walton’s tests is going unpaid and she is hoping to get reimbursed later, from either insurance companies that don’t currently have a payable pathway or from COVID-19 Uninsured, a federal program for those sick without insurance.

“It is OK right now,” Walton said. “The amount we are able to get reimbursed, the 30 percent of patients’ insurance, that seems to be enough to support us to keep going for now.”

Along with the pressure of serving 100 people a day who are often worried or in need of a test fast, there is one pleasant surprise: Central Ave Pharmacy’s front-of-store sales have increased 10 percent to 15 percent. And many people coming in for a test have transferred their prescriptions to the pharmacy because of the welcoming atmosphere the pharmacy provides.

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