Major pharmacy faces accusations of discriminatory store closures

After vowing to close hundreds of its stores by August of this year, Walgreens is being put in the hot seat for where it is choosing to close up shop. The pharmacy, which provides care to consumers in over 8,600 locations across the U.S., is being accused of “racial and economic discrimination” by a group of lawmakers after it recently closed stores in communities that have predominantly Black and Latino residents.

“When a Walgreens leaves a neighborhood, they disrupt the entire community and they take with them baby formula, diapers, asthma inhalers, life-saving medications, and, of course, jobs,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley while speaking on the House floor on Jan. 30. “These closures are not arbitrary and they are not innocent. They are life-threatening acts of racial and economic discrimination.”

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In June 2023, it was reported that Walgreens is planning to close 150 U.S. locations by Aug. 31, 2024 due to cost-cutting, a trend that has also hit other major pharmacies such CVS and Rite Aid, which both have also been announcing massive store closures.

After closing multiple stores in Black and Latino neighborhoods in Massachusetts, Walgreens recently announced in early January another pharmacy closure in the area, this time on Warren Street in Roxbury, a neighborhood Pressley highlighted in her House speech is 85% Black and Latino. She also claimed that the decision from Walgreens was made with “no community input.”

“Why was there no community input? No adequate notice to customers? And no transition resources to prevent gaps in health care?” said Pressley. “Shame on you, Walgreens.

Having a website with talking points about health equity and underserved communities is not enough.”

In an emailed statement to TheStreet, Walgreens said that its choice to close its store in Roxbury and other stores was due to finances and several other factors.

“As a result of the current operating environment and our financial performance, we have had to make difficult decisions across our business including corporate headcount reductions, as well as store closures like Roxbury,” said Walgreens. “Roxbury’s closure was due to several factors including the cost of operating, low prescription volume and low reimbursement rates.”

The pharmacy also claims that it is “committed to health equity” and that “nearly half” of its stores in the greater Boston area “are in neighborhoods that have been traditionally underserved.”

Pressley and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey sent a letter to Walgreens CEO Tim Wentworth on Jan. 19 responding to the pharmacy’s planned store closure in Roxbury. They claim that Walgreens’ recent store closures in Black and Latino neighborhoods appears to be part of a “larger pattern.”

“Across the country, the concentration of pharmacies, including Walgreens, is shifting from Black and Latino neighborhoods to mostly white, higher income areas,” wrote the lawmakers in the letter. “In Chicago, Walgreens has shuttered locations in Black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods. The same pattern has occurred in Oakland and Milwaukee. Of the Walgreens locations that have closed in Boston, the closures have occurred exclusively in predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods.”

A Walgreens Pharmacy and store closing sign is seen at a storefront entrance in New York City.

UCG/Getty Images

Pharmacy closures in the U.S. have been historically common in low-income areas, according to a recent research study from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study found that between 2009 to 2015, out of the 9,654 pharmacies that closed during that time period, one in four of them were located in urban, low-income neighborhoods.

Areas with little or few pharmacies in Black and Hispanic or low-income neighborhoods are often called “pharmacy deserts,” and pharmacies exiting these areas can worsen health disparities in the U.S. health care system, according to a research study from the University of Houston.

“As a result, these closures may detrimentally affect the health outcomes of acute and chronic disease patients and impose a significant burden on the U.S. healthcare system,” reads the study. “Furthermore, for medically underserved rural and urban residents, who already experience more significant barriers to pharmacy and healthcare access, closures may exacerbate such health disparities.”

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