Closing Time

You wouldn't think you'd need a pharmacist to buy a newspaper. Or a pair of pantyhose. Or a box of jelly donuts. But that's the situation in Connecticut, where state regulations require certain drugstores to shut their doors entirely if there's no druggist on duty. Now that an increased education requirement has caused a shortage of pharmacists, the law is inconveniencing customers and businesses alike. Neither the stores nor the state keeps track of shutdowns, so it's unclear how many shops have been affected. But anecdotal evidence suggests that employees at more than a dozen stores got an unexpected day off over the Labor Day weekend.

The closure requirement is an irksome remnant of the days when drugstores sold drugs and convenience stores sold snacks and periodicals.

It's just one of many regulations dictated by Connecticut's Pharmacy Commission. For example, there's the "tech ratio": For every pharmacist, there can be no more than two technician assistants. The rule is supposed to enable pharmacists to make sure the technicians don't screw up when filling bottles, inserting cotton, and putting on caps. Such a requirement works well for pharmacists in theory: Like licensing, it re-stricts entry into the profession and keeps its practitioners in high demand. But in practice, now that pharmacists are spread thin, it burdens them with grueling hours and understaffing.

The increase in the education requirement-part of a nationwide professionalization drive-is directly responsible for the sudden pharmacist shortage. Connecticut pharmacy schools didn't graduate any classes this year; would-be graduates instead have to stick around for a sixth year. At the same time, fewer students are enrolling in pharmacy schools. Neighborhood pharmacist has never been a glamorous career choice, and the position's growing reputation for stress probably isn't adding any allure. Nor is the extra year of training.

Grace Nome, a lobbyist for the industry group Connecticut Chain Drug Stores, questions whether the state needs such inflexible restrictions. She mentions a rule mandating that pharmacies stay open for at least 35 hours per week, a measure designed to protect the consumer. "In all honesty, you can only make a customer mad so many times, and then they're not coming back," she says. Nome is baffled by the tech-pharmacist ratio, which she sees as placing an unneeded burden on working pharmacists. "These pharmacists need relief," she says. "The tech ratio should be increased immediately to 3 to 1." After all, how many pharmacists does it take to screw a cap on a bottle?

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