NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 22, 2005

There's a new antidote for long lines at the drugstore pharmacy: machines that serve up your prescription refills like a can of Coke or a Snickers bar. The idea behind the machines, which look much like a typical bank ATM, is to expedite a process that is often bogged down by long lines and frustrating waits.

Once customers have filled an initial prescription with the pharmacist, they can register to retrieve and pay for their refills at a vending machine inside the store -- even when the pharmacy counter isn't open.

  • Consumers order their refills in the usual way, either online or by phone.
  • A pharmacist then fills the script and places packaged medicines in the machine.
  • To pick up the order, consumers log on with a user name and password and swipe a credit or debit card and their pre-wrapped package drops into the bin.

The ATM-like machines are raising questions among pharmacists and state regulators who oversee prescription-drug dispensing.

  • One worry is that patients might end up with the wrong drug.
  • Some pharmacists also don't like the machines because they cut out traditional face-to-face consultations with patients.
  • The concern is that patients might be discouraged from asking pharmacists about such things as whether alcohol should be avoided with a medicine, or possible drug interactions.

Meanwhile, regulators are fearful that the machines could replace the pharmacists, says Mary Ann Wagner, vice president of pharmacy regulatory affairs for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a trade group in Alexandria, Va.

That can be a difficult argument to make given how many drugs are now dispensed by mail order. Indeed, driving this effort is a need by drugstore chains to boost competition against mail-order pharmacies by making pickups faster and easier.

Source: Rhonda L. Rundle, "Getting Your Drugs From a Vending Machine: Pharmacies Test Kiosks That Dispense Refills; Some Regulators Are Leery," Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2005.

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