Walgreens exec talks pharmacy walkouts, GLP-1 drugs and PBM legislation

As pharmacy workers begin efforts to unionize, Walgreens Boots Alliance Executive Vice President and President of U.S. Healthcare John Driscoll told audience members at the Reuters Total Health conference in Chicago that the company will be improving salary and benefits but did not offer a timetable on when such changes could occur.

He also discussed the wide-ranging impacts of GLP-1 drugs and how pharmacy benefit manager legislation could change the industry, among other topics.

Pharmacy walkouts may be only the beginning

Driscoll acknowledged the weight of expectations placed on pharmacy workers is real and tiresome, particularly after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, before promising that better wages are on the way.

“We have put an enormous burden on our pharmacists and our pharmacy technicians,” he said. “We are investing in salaries and benefits for the folks who are in the stores.”

He said that some automation will simplify work and free up employees’ time, allowing them to better develop connections with the patient. Driscoll added that the company is “aggressively” looking to hire, but addressing salaries, benefits and workflow overnight is “hard to do.”

Walgreens pharmacy workers staged scattered walkouts from Oct. 9 to Oct. 11, citing unfair and harsh working conditions, coupled with low wages, that make it hard to fulfill prescription orders safely as just a few reasons for frustration. More walkouts occurred toward the end of the month through Nov. 1, but some critics said the workers needed a union presence to affect real change. It appears that is changing amid growing labor unrest throughout the industry.

Backed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers as of Wednesday, pharmacy workers that previously advocated for labor reforms solely through online forums and posts have now joined voices with a union group representing more than 600,000 members. The group, called the Pharmacy Guild, is fighting for safe working standards, collective bargaining and legislative action to protect pharmacy workers.

“This is more than a union organizing effort,” said the Pharmacy Guild’s founding statement. “It is a call to take this powerful social movement of pharmacy professionals to the next level by developing the organizational infrastructure and institutional influence necessary to make real change.”

Walgreens said the effects of previous walkouts has been minimal, but the company is choosing to cancel corporate bonuses after not meeting performance metrics, according to a memo circulated to CNN. Meanwhile, Walgreens executives have recorded millions in compensation, including the company's former CEO and current executive chair of the board Stefano Pessina, who made more than $8 million last year. Walgreens is set to lay off 5% of its corporate workforce, reports Crain’s Chicago Business.

GLP-1 drugs are ‘game changing’

The nation continues to appreciate, and demand, GLP-1 drugs for weight loss. And Walgreens doesn’t expect the demand to subside anytime soon.

“I think these drugs are going to profoundly change the way people experience healthcare,” said Driscoll. “They are going a lot faster and with a lot more on-and off-label use than I think anyone would’ve expected. I think over time they’ll just become part of the fabric of the way we think about healthcare.”

He said despite the drug’s capacity for improving chronic care outcomes, a reimbursement model that correctly compensates pharmacists still needs to be figured out, and an eye needs to be kept on the subset of the population that experiences negative side effects.

Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration approved Zepbound, a weight loss drug from Eli Lilly, which joins a crowded field of GLP-1s that includes Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro. Lilly will charge $1,059 per month for the drug.


With FDA approval, Eli Lilly's weight loss drug Zepbound arrives to challenge Novo Nordisk

“The question I guess is … how quickly can a generic come on the market?” he posed to the audience, before adding that he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. He said he’s interested to see whether the underlying application of the drug can be applied to addiction or whether there are more applications to cardiovascular health.

And while some analysts and companies fear that weight loss drugs will cause purchasing habits to change so much that sales for snacks and drinks decrease, Driscoll hasn’t seen evidence of that yet in Walgreens retail locations, though he noted that could be a potentially positive side effect of the drug’s impact on the population.

“We will happily adjust what the consumers want to buy if that happens,” he said.

Thoughts on PBMs

Wednesday, federal legislators exerted more pressure on PBMs as part of a comprehensive health package out of the Senate Finance Committee. It is one of few topics that consistently gets bipartisan support for reform at the state and national levels.

Tension exists between PBMs and pharmacies, but Driscoll maintained that opportunities for collaboration could present themselves in the future if both PBMs and pharmacies become more aligned.

“I think as those bills get passed … I think you’re going to see a better partnership between retail pharmacies and PBMs,” said Driscoll. “What I'm excited about is opportunities that all retail pharmacies have to partner with PBMs to do a better job of managing chronic illness for health plans.”

Vaccine coverage denials

Driscoll acknowledged there has been “some friction” between patients and their health plans after customers were surprised to find they owed money to insurers for COVID vaccine shots, since vaccine shots are supposed to be free to all individuals.

In September, the Department of Health and Human Services said the issue was resolved and amounted to technical backend errors on the insurers' part.