Slippery Rock Pharmacy: rebelling against the medical-industrial complex

Owner Clint Kassi prefers a ‘personable’ approach to healthcare

Published by Hayden Schultz, Date: February 15, 2024
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Clint Kassi, owner of Slippery Rock Pharmacy in Town Center plaza, opened shop in 2015 after working behind retail pharmacy counters for over a decade.

After years of putting up with corporate disconnect, the New Castle native wanted his own patient-centric venture.

“Having somebody telling you that you need to accomplish something that doesn’t make any sense, or is unrealistic while earning some idiot’s paycheck for them,” he said, “I had enough of that.”

Kassi earned his pharmacy credentials at Duquesne University and entered the field two decades ago. It is a field he said changed a lot since graduating.

“With all the health systems there are no more individual doctors’ offices,” Kassi said. “The way it used to be is if you were a good doctor, people would come to you, and if you were a lousy doctor people probably wouldn’t.”

The owner said the structure of the medical-industrial complex, the corporatized system of healthcare industry and professionals, can make it worse for the patients. This is especially true in a time of healthcare worker shortages.

“The quality of care has gone down,” he said. “Working in a health system, if you suck at your job, as long as you don’t commit some sort of crime, you’re not going to lose it.”

After his decade-long stint in the retail sector, Kassi wanted to cater towards individualism in healthcare, a trend that he thinks is dead.

“Just being able to offer personable health care experience where you’re not just a number, you can’t do that at a chain,” he said. “I know everyone that comes in and their meds.”

Kassi said his freedom allows him to form relationships with his patients. One way he said his relationships are beneficial is by helping people understand what medicine they are picking up, its effects and how much they really need.

“I know at other pharmacies when a prescription comes over, they just fill it,” he said. “If I see a prescription come over and it’s an increase in dose, I don’t fill it right away, I wait and I’ll talk to [the patient].”

The owner landed on Slippery Rock to host his own endeavor after realizing there were no independent pharmacies in the area. He decided owning one store is plenty since he wanted to keep his profession personalized and patient-centric, something he despised about corporate chains.

“It would be tough to [cater to individual customers] if I had multiple stores,” Kassi said. “I would be worried about what’s going on in the other store.”

The owner does not only prioritize personalized care, but his pharmacy is also the closest to SRU and offers delivery to campus.

Being the sole owner of the pharmacy, Kassi does not do it alone. His substitute pharmacist, Sue, fills in when needed and his mother-in-law, Carrie, helps with packaging, taxes and inventory.

Although keeping patients the priority, Kassi wanted to expand his business with over-the-counter medication and accessories. About a year ago, while he and his wife were cleaning their basement, they thought of selling extra items they found.

“I enjoyed the science but also the business end,” he said, referring to one of the original reasons he pursued pharmacology.

That remains true. Kassi has regulars come into the pharmacy just to snoop around the flea market area, or what he calls his “year-round yard sale.” He says it was unexpectedly profitable, tallying around $1,000 over the year from items of his family and friends. According to Kassi, experiments like this are just another advantage of owning an independent business.

Independence in the field of pharmacy comes with its benefits but also many struggles, according to Kassi. He said the future does not look bright for small businesses in the field.

“There could be a point where I don’t exist,” he said, “Which is happening to a lot of independent pharmacies who are struggling with insurance company reimbursement.”

Kassi is referring to the current model of healthcare insurance in the United States, a system he said is broken. According to Kassi, the situation has continually worsened from when he opened eight years ago and is “unbelievably different” than 20 years ago.

“It’s a challenging field because about 90% of the prices are set by the insurance company and we have no control over that,” he said. “Me, I’m pigeonholed in.”

Kassi said he believes the insurance companies are going to “ride this train until it goes off the rails,” in regard to prioritizing profit over sustainability.

Explaining the role pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) play in monetary policies, the owner said, “I don’t get paid like Giant Eagle and Rite Aid would; our contracts aren’t the same.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission’s website, the agency launched an investigation into PBMs in 2022, seeking answers for “charging fees and clawbacks to unaffiliated pharmacies; steering patients towards PBM-owned pharmacies; potentially unfair auditing of unaffiliated pharmacies; the use of complicated and opaque pharmacy reimbursement methods; and negotiating rebates and fees with drug manufacturers that may skew the formulary incentives and impact the costs of prescription drugs to payers and patients.”

The argument for the existence of PBMs is the role they play in keeping drug costs low for consumers, according to policy analyst Ike Brannon, a senior fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation and president of Capital Policy Analytics in Washington, D.C.

The FTC investigation is ongoing but sheds light on Kassi’s concerns about the industry.

“We’ve been trying to get congress to listen but it’s kind of a pointless venture because those insurance companies have a lot of money,” Kassi said. “Us independents, we don’t have that much.”

He explained that for any given pill, he might get paid $5 by an insurance company for a few pills, only costing the patient about $2. The insurance company then charges the patient’s employer or provider around $15, earning a profit of at least $10.

“They didn’t do anything, they didn’t provide any service,” he said. “They just allowed my claim to go through a computer and spit out a piece of data.”

Even with expressed gloom for America’s healthcare insurance industry, Kassi helps where he can, starting with the next generation of healthcare workers.

Working with SRU over the last 3 or 4 years, Kassi hosts students in the physician assistant program. Students get to shadow Kassi and observe his practice for a couple of hours at a time.

“It’s good so they see another area of healthcare,” he said. “They get a better understanding of me, I get a better understanding of them.”

Kassi explained how important the relationship is between doctors and pharmacists, something he also said breaks down with the modern healthcare-industrial complex.

“There’s a lot of errors, you’d be surprised,” he said. “Communication is definitely a problem in healthcare.”

Besides his concerns about the current state of healthcare in America, Kassi in the meantime aims to help his customers, ranging from SRU students to senior citizens.

“I really enjoy helping people save money,” he said, “And seeing them maintain their health as much as they can.”

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