Vending-machine pharmacist speeds prescription delivery

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (SHN) — At Molina Medical Group clinics here, a vending machine rather than a pharmacist dispenses prescription drugs.

Molina officials say the big machines make life simpler for patients, but their use has drawn objections from some pharmacists.

The refrigerator-size kiosks hold a stock of medications for common illnesses such as colds, flus and rashes, so patients can have their prescription filled before they leave the clinic.

“With our patient population, there may be some barriers to getting over to the pharmacy to pick up medication,” said Gloria Calderon, Molina’s vice president of clinic operations.

The company serves largely low-income patients through programs such as Medi-Cal and Healthy Families. The robotic pharmacies improve access to medications for patients who may struggle to find child care or transportation.

InstyMeds Corp. of Minneapolis introduced the kiosks in 2002; they’re installed in about 200 locations around the country, spokeswoman Emily Theisen said.

Molina operates clinics in California and Washington, with four in the Sacramento area. Many of its patients at one, on Norwood Avenue, are children. The robotic pharmacy, in place for almost two years, is especially popular among their parents, clinic administrator Veoletta Huerls said.

At Molina clinics, nurses and medical assistants operate the machines for patients. Elsewhere, patients use InstyMeds machines by typing in a code and birth date to get their prescriptions.

The machines eliminate delays involving transferring insurance information from clinics to pharmacies.

“My last name is different from my kids’, so I’d have to bring more documents into the store or they’d have to call the doctor to verify that I am the mother,” said Angelica Garcia, who brings her four children to the Norwood Avenue clinic.

Pediatrician Bobbi Underhill said approving prescriptions for insurance purposes sometimes can take more than a day. With the clinic dispenser, the wait is rarely longer than 10 minutes. Patients can choose to have prescriptions filled at a regular pharmacy.

Some pharmacist groups have raised safety concerns about the kiosks, which are potential competitors.

Jon Roth, chief executive officer of the California Pharmacists Association, said removing pharmacists from the prescription process could, “at worst, result in dangerous therapy.”

Pharmacists traditionally consult with patients and physicians, suggesting cheaper, safer or more effective treatments when they are available. “That dialogue is all about maximizing outcomes for the patient and minimizing the risk,” Roth said.

Calderon said Molina has had no reports about problems involving the robotic pharmacies.

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