'There Has to Be a Better Way'

'There Has to Be a Better Way'

Chris Johnson is a 35-year-old pharmacist in Austin, Texas. He had worked for nearly a decade in chainstore pharmacies and was doing well, pulling down nearly $100,000 a year and gliding along an upward career path. But, he said, "It made me sick to my stomach."

He was sickened by the outrageous prices being charged and by the burden this put on folks who had no insurance coverage, and he had this to say about it.

"These drugs are bankrupting people. I saw too many instances where people had to make hard decisions between keeping on the electricity and keeping their hearts in the right rhythm. Too many instances of patients walking away from the counter because of the simple fact that they could not afford their medications. And my hands were tied by the corporations for whom I worked. I couldn't lower the prices for these people, even though I knew how much the drugs really cost us and that the profit margins were obscene."

Another sickening factor was that he did this twelve hours a day, putting in six-day weeks. Yeah, there was a nice paycheck, but he came home to a dark house every night, with all of his family asleep. He barely saw his wife, Bryna, and their two sons. Inside the corporate system, he could neither do what he wanted to do nor be who he wanted to be. "There has to be a better way," Chris said to himself at the time.

And now there is, because he created one. In April 2005, Johnson opened what he calls "our unique little pharmacy," naming it MedSavers.

Unique, indeed. "Now," said Johnson, "I'm back doing what I went into pharmacy to do – helping people." MedSavers caters to those who have no health insurance or whose meager plans don't cover the cost of prescriptions. He dramatically lowers the prices for his customers by selling only generic drugs and by cutting overhead to the bare-bones level. He and Arturo Herrera, a medical technician, are the only full-time employees. Plus – and it's a big plus – MedSavers does not deal with insurance corporations, so Johnson saves time and money, and agony by not having to wrestle with the paperwork of those enormous, nay-saying bureaucracies.

Even though this is only one small pharmacy, with none of the wholesale buying clout of, say, the five-thousand-store Walgreens chain, MedSavers delivers serious savings, typically charging only half as much as the big boys do.

Johnson noted that he sells 90 capsules of the generic version of Prozac for $15.80, while CVS charges $58.99 for the same thing. "I could add another $20 on my price and customers would still think it's a good deal, but I'd be getting the same mind-set as the chains. There's a business model of 'charge as much as you can,' but I like the business model of 'charge a fair price' – what you need to keep yourself in business and take care of your family. I'm all for making a profit – and we do – but I have a problem with obscene profits, whether it's a pharmaceutical company, a retail drugstore, or a shoe-repair shop."

The price that Chris pays for ethics is that he no longer makes $100,000 a year. "But, you know, people don't really need as much as they think they do," he said. "It's a matter of aligning your work with your values."

Even though he works hard, Johnson deliberately set the hours of the pharmacy at ten to six on weekdays and nine to two on Saturday, so that he and his employees can have a life. "I can now have breakfast every morning with our two boys, and I'm home in time for dinner and bedtime with them," Johnson explained.

Also, work itself is more of a pleasure. He's come to know the people he serves, not by their prescription numbers but by name. He shoots the breeze with them, learns about them and their families, and builds community right into his business.

Then there's the satisfaction of knowing that your work matters. MedSavers not only has customers, but ones who are deeply appreciative that someone gives a damn whether they can get the medicines they need at an affordable price. "To go home and feel I made a difference in somebody's life is a huge, huge thing," said Johnson, beaming.

– From Chapter 6, "The Good (Business) Life," in Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow, by Jim Hightower with Susan DeMarco, John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2008. Reprinted with permission.

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