Rival pharmacy groups join forces in new alliance

The two leading trade associations representing pharmacies have formed an unprecedented alliance to revitalize grassroots and lobbying activities on behalf of small drug stores.

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) and the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) announced Thursday that they had created the Coalition for Community Pharmacy Action. The alliance will engage in grassroots organizing of pharmacists, embark on a public-affairs campaign and use the lobbying resources of the two associations, according to the groups.

The collaboration marks a strategic shift for two organizations that do not have a history of working closely together, even when their interests align.

This year, pharmacies are fighting against changes to Medicare, Medicaid and the military’s Tricare health-insurance program that they argue threaten the viability of small, community pharmacies.

NCPA’s senior vice president for government affairs, Charlie Sewell, said the federal government has become a much bigger part of the pharmacy business recently, necessitating a closer working relationship with the NACDS.

Sewell and Catherine Polley, NACDS’s vice president of state-government affairs, are co-presidents of the new coalition.

“Everybody recognized that the time had come for us to do a better job of working together,” Sewell said.

The two groups’ newly cooperative tack coincides with recent efforts by an upstart North Carolina-based lobbying group to gain a foothold in Washington.

The Association of Community Pharmacists (ACP) formed its ACP Congressional Network (ACPCN) earlier this year to press Congress on the same issues the NACDS-NCPA alliance has been created to work on.

The North Carolina group has been expanding its reach through grassroots organizing and by opening a small D.C. office. The ACPCN hired its first full-time, D.C.-based lobbyist last week when it named Julie Philp, the former legislative director for Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), as director of government relations.

The ACPCN has launched several grassroots campaigns this year, including one that encouraged pharmacists to send pill bottles containing a single penny and labeled with criticisms of Part D.

The ACPCN was not invited to participate in the NACDS-NCPA coalition, even though the ACP’s vice president of governmental affairs, Mike James, was part of the early discussions about its formation, Sewell said.

In addition to lobbying the North Carolina Legislature for the ACP, James also is vice chairman of the NCPA’s legislation committee and has a longtime relationship with NACDS board Chairman Anthony Civello, who is president and CEO of Kerr Drug, the regional pharmacy chain that is based in North Carolina.

James and Civello talked about forming an alliance between chain stores and independent pharmacies before the NACDS and the NCPA began to work on their arrangement. In fact, James said, he proposed that the ACPCN participate in the grassroots activities of the new coalition. His offer has not been accepted, he said.

Nevertheless, James stressed, “I fully support their efforts, by all means.”

Sewell said the North Carolina group’s work would complement what the NCPA and the new coalition will do. “The more, the merrier,” he said.

“What we’re doing is on a much bigger scale,” said Polley. An NACDS spokeswoman said that the ACPCN’s work did not influence the larger association’s interest in expanding its grassroots activities. Polley noted that the NACDS and the NCPA also cooperated, albeit more loosely, as part of the Coalition for Meaningful Medicaid Reform, which unsuccessfully lobbied against provisions of the Deficit Reduction Act last year.

The NACDS and the NCPA have some members in common, but the political agenda of the two groups is not always the same.

The smaller, independent pharmacies that make up the NCPA generally are more vulnerable to changes in payment policy for government programs than the large retailers in the NACDS, for which medicines represent a relatively smaller portion of their business.

Recent legislative and regulatory defeats for pharmacies related to the Medicare drug benefit and Medicaid payments also have led the two associations to refocus their efforts.

The NACDS in particular has been undergoing significant changes. This spring, longtime president and CEO Craig Fuller departed after more than six years when the board of directors indicated it wanted a change of direction. Since then, the group has renewed its efforts to improve its relations with its member companies.

The lack of coordination between the NACDS and NCPA has allowed its opponents to employ a “divide and conquer” approach in the past, Sewell conceded.