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INDIANAPOLIS– For many Hoosiers, filling their prescriptions can be a roadblock to getting healthier.

That’s because many Indiana cities don’t have a pharmacy in their neighborhood.

FOX59’s Beairshelle Edmé found many Indiana communities struggle with this issue, including Indianapolis.

In this third, and final report of her series on health disparities, she explores the issue of exploring pharmacy deserts and what Indiana lawmakers plan to do about it.

A May 2021 Healthy Allies study found 60 percent of Indianapolis neighborhoods are in a pharmacy desert, which is well above the national average of more than 30 percent.

It means there’s no pharmacy within a mile of these neighborhoods, and for neighborhoods considered low-income, within half a mile.

“It’s actually the same as you have to go get food. You’ve got to go 5, 10 miles out of the way to get something… it’s an inconvenience. You have to try to get a ride. A lot of people can’t get around; you have to find somebody to do something for you

20+ year Near Northwest side resident, Leroy Ross, 74

“The other drug store they closed it down at 38th & Illinois, CVS. They’ve been closing and re-opening drug stores for the last 10 to 15 years, and they be in that one spot maybe two or three years, and they move out of it.

Longtime Near Northwest side resident, Windell Crenshaw, 75

“I’ve been here 42 years on the West side and I’ve never seen a CVS or Walgreens or no type of pharmacy… there should be one over here, yeah. There’s more liquor stores…”

Longtime West side resident, Michael Pearson, 42

So where do these Hoosiers go?

For Crenshaw, a veteran, his local Veterans Affairs healthcare team mails him his medication; otherwise, his closest pharmacy chain is about 2 to 3 miles away. While he drives, he is an amputee, and it can be challenging to travel.

Dr. Dima Qato, from USC’s School of Pharmacy, coined the term pharmacy desert. She explained to Edmé the pandemic further impacted this health disparity.

“It was a great natural experiment to see how pharmacies matter and they impact access, and in this case to the vaccine or diagnostic testing,” detailed Qato, also a senior fellow of the USC’s Health Policy & Economics Department. “And I think during the early part of the pandemic with the testing, it became really apparent that where do we go to get tested if the pharmacies are so far away.”

The Raphael Health Center on the Near North side knows the answer to Dr. Qato’s question.
The healthcare facility is in a pharmacy desert, where many patients take the bus. The easiest pharmacy to get to is either 3 or 6 miles away for patients and neighbors in the area.

“There’s a wait at CVS and Walgreens. They were doing a great job, but they had waits so then you can’t wait because you’ve got to pick up your child or go to your job so that means you are incubating potentially or spreading– it’s really bad,” said Sherry Gray, executive director of the Raphael Health Center.

FOX59 requested testing and vaccine data for three Indianapolis neighborhoods and zip codes, considered pharmacy deserts. In a statement, CVS told FOX59, “we have pharmacies in each of those areas.” FOX59 found however some neighborhoods are still more than a mile away from those businesses.

In all three, less than 25 percent of the population had gotten a COVID-19 test at some point.

Nearly half of Marion County is fully vaccinated, as of early October 2021; both Mapleton Fall Creek (46218) and Crown Hill (46208) fell below that average at 44 percent and 32 percent, respectively. The Watson-McCord (46205) neighborhood was just above the average at 54 percent.

“I think that healthcare delayed is healthcare denied and so people aren’t vaccinated because it’s just hard to get there, to get the information you need,” Gray explained.

In 2018, lawmakers passed a bipartisan measure to study pharmacy deserts. Three years later, FOX59 tried to track down what Hoosiers’ elected officials discovered and proposed.

There was nothing because the study simply never went forward.

FOX59 asked one of the measure’s co-sponsor, State Senator Eddie Melton (D, Gary), why.

“Typically when bills pass for a legislative study committee, it’s up to the legislative council. The leaders in both chambers, they come before– they come together and make a decision on what’s going to be assigned and I’m not sure if that was assigned to the committee,” Melton said. “And if it was assigned to a committee, sometimes the chair has the discretion on whether or not they’re going to go forth with moving forward. This is something I am reviewing with our staff to revisit and bring it back because this is still a pressing issue in my community, and I’m sure that it’s still one in other communities as well.”

After our questions, Mr. Melton told FOX59 he plans on, “filing some type of legislation and working with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to bring this subject back.”

Later he added, “We want to make sure we do it in a more equitable way. This is not just a Black and brown situation, although we are typically the most impacted. We’re seeing many of our rural communities as well suffer with inadequate healthcare services.”

Part of that solution could include bringing pharmacy execs, the leaders of the industry, to the table.

“I think we have to look at that model because many of them may generate their revenue, not on their store amenities, such as food or other services, but they’re looking at how many folks are filling scripts,” the democratic state senator said. “That’s why having a study is critical.”

And critical is exactly how residents describe the situation in their neighborhood, now turned pharmacy deserts.

FOX59 reached out to several major pharmacy chains to ask about their departures from Indianapolis neighborhoods, and how if these businesses will reinvest in our communities.

Here are their statements:

“We currently have more than 330 CVS Pharmacy locations across Indiana, including our pharmacies in Target and Schnucks. More than 50 are located in Indianapolis/Marion County. We also continue to grow and invest in the state, and have closed a limited number of locations in Indiana in recent years. Our stores located in high-density areas, such as those in Indianapolis, typically have multi-year leases, so we are committed to continuing to operate in those locations and to serve the health care needs of those neighborhoods.

While part of the regular course of business, at times, we have to make the difficult decision to close a CVS location. We don’t take any store closure lightly and every effort is made to ensure our patients continue to have convenient access to their medications at our nearby pharmacies or through prescription delivery.”

CVS Spokeswoman

“Walgreens is committed to driving equitable access to our pharmacy care for the millions of patients across the country whom we’re privileged to serve. With more than 9,000 locations nationwide, roughly 79% of the U.S. population lives within five miles of a Walgreens.

It’s important that we do all that we can to remove barriers to accessing care. To overcome hurdles, Walgreens utilizes targeted pharmacy services like same-day prescription delivery for the convenience of not having to leave home. We also engage in key alliances, like our partnership with Uber, for example, where free transportation to and from COVID-19 vaccination appointments at Walgreens is available for patients in need.

Walgreens has a long history of working with local churches, civic groups and national public service organizations to deliver life-saving vaccines to medically underserved populations. Such collaborations enable our ability to offer off-site and mobile clinics in neighborhoods and rural areas where we’re able to provide walk-up access to COVID-19 and flu immunizations. Since the start of the pandemic, through the Walgreens COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Initiative these collaborations have resulted in hosting more than 1,300 community based clinics (to date) coast-to-coast.

Recent examples in Indianapolis include, but are not limited to, Walgreens ongoing partnership with Purdue’s Center for Health Equity and Gleaner’s Food Bank. Since May, joint efforts have resulted in vaccinating hundreds of local residents for COVID-19 at community based clinics, including a drive thru clinic held in September at Indianapolis’ John Marshall High School.”

Walgreens Spokeswoman