Alaska News

Alaska’s pharmacist shortage has meant reduced hours and long waits for prescriptions

Alaskans hoping to pick up prescriptions are facing temporary closures amid persistent staffing challenges at some pharmacies around the state, part of a longstanding pharmacist shortage in Alaska and nationwide.

Earlier this month, the Alaska Board of Pharmacy sent an email to all licensed pharmacists in the state saying they are required by state statute to make sure that patients’ prescriptions are getting transferred to other pharmacies in the event of unexpected closures.

“It is understood that staffing shortages occur from time to time however patients must have access to their prescription medications and devices even during these times,” said the notice, signed by the Board of Pharmacy’s executive administrator, Michael Bowles. “Pharmacies cannot simply close and let prescriptions sit dormant until they open again.”

The email was in part a response to anecdotal reports about pharmacies needing to temporarily close due to staffing shortages, according to Victoria Caltagirone, a spokeswoman with the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

The message was also a proactive response to news stories about walkouts that have been occurring in Walgreens and CVS stores in the Lower 48 in recent weeks, Caltagirone said in an email. At those pharmacies, workers have reported increased workloads and not enough staff, creating untenable working conditions, according to national news reports.

Brandy Seignemartin, president of the Alaska Pharmacists Association, said that she hasn’t heard of any organizing efforts at Alaska pharmacies related to walkouts. But she was aware of some temporary closures at pharmacies around the state due to staffing issues.

Public health officials in several communities — including Valdez, Fairbanks and Anchorage — reached by phone in recent days reported staffing challenges at local pharmacies that were leading to temporary closures or other issues with patients accessing medicine in a timely way.


Officials in other communities — including Homer, Bethel and Juneau — relayed reports of short staffing at pharmacies, but said they were not aware of any closures.

Dan Nelson, director of pharmacy at Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal health organization based in Fairbanks, said he had heard reports of temporary closures there in recent months.

In Anchorage this month, a sign in the door of Walgreens on Lake Otis Parkway read that the pharmacy was closed for a week due to a lack of a pharmacist, right on top of another sign that had been posted earlier about reduced hours at the pharmacy. A different Walgreens, off Northern Lights Boulevard and Minnesota Drive, was also closed for a period this month.

In Valdez, frequent staffing challenges at the city’s sole pharmacy has led to a backlog of people waiting on prescription refills, according to Tom Wadsworth, dean of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s school of pharmacy.

Alaska’s pharmacist shortage worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, when pharmacies faced an increased workload and difficult working conditions, causing many pharmacists to retire or leave the field early. But many of the conditions that led to the closures began years before COVID-19, pharmacists reached for this story said.

Nelson and Wadsworth attribute the problem to a relatively new and complicated reimbursement model involving pharmacy benefit managers, companies that act as middlemen between insurance companies and pharmacies to set prescription reimbursement prices, and often pocket large shares of the profits.

Wadsworth said staffing shortages now appear to be particularly noticeable at chain pharmacies, where working conditions are often more difficult, and pay is typically lower than at hospitals, clinics or tribal health organizations.

“Pharmacists don’t like those (retail) jobs as much because the working conditions are not ideal,” he said.

Nelson linked the new reimbursement model, and the resulting small profit margins for the pharmacies, to consistently low pay for pharmacy technicians and decisions by management to cut hours and reduce the number of staff at each store.

“One of the most expensive parts of running a pharmacy is staffing,” he said. “So they’ve cut their staffing in response to the low reimbursement rate.”

Representatives from Walgreens, Fred Meyer, Target and Walmart did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Seignemartin said she hoped a new bill introduced to the state Legislature at the end of last session might help improve conditions for Alaska pharmacists by imposing limits on pharmacy benefit managers in the state.

“We definitely support the Board of Pharmacy statement to ensure that we do have that continuity of care, and that patients really should be able to know where they can go to get their prescriptions,” she said.

Nelson encouraged Alaskans who arrive at a pharmacy to pick up a prescription only to find it unexpectedly closed to report the incident to the Board of Pharmacy, and then to try a different pharmacy in town that’s part of the same chain, which should be able to honor the prescription request, he said.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at