Pharmacy's most pressing issue: a technician shortage

At a recent event for community and locally owned pharmacies, William Schimmel, executive director and CEO of the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board, said people were approaching him and asking for "magic" while seeking more technicians. 

There isn't national data tracking the shortage of pharmacy technicians, but "I don't go anywhere or talk to anyone about technicians where they don't bring up the shortage these days," Mr. Schimmel told Becker's

Because of workforce constraints, most hospital pharmacy teams are resorting to pharmacists performing jobs that technicians usually do, according to a report the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists released in April.

The ASHP survey found that 3 in 4 pharmacy technicians thought higher pay would help with retention rates as they deal with heavy workloads and inadequate staffing. The National Community Pharmacists Association found a similar figure in a report published in August. 

"The vacancy rate for technicians, across a 3-year period, had more than tripled," Mr. Schimmel said. "It had gone from about 6 percent to 21 percent."

One in 10 hospital pharmacies also reported losing at least 40 percent of their staff. 

"That's essentially a gutting," Mr. Schimmel, who has worked in the credentialing business for 20 years, said. "The shortage is real, for sure."

Jesse Diaz, the division manager at Ontario, Calif.-based San Joaquin Valley College, said the standard pay for pharmacy technicians isn't enough. 

In 2021, the national median pay was $17.66 per hour, or $36,740 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pharmacy technicians' wages are slightly higher at hospitals compared to local pharmacies and grocery chain pharmacies — a salary of $38,000 compared to about $36,000 — but 16 percent of those pharmacy technicians work at hospitals and 50 percent at local pharmacies. 

In comparison, health technologists and technicians make $10,000 more per year, according to the Bureau. 

"The issue is, in California, they're not willing to come up on pay," Mr. Diaz, who's a nationally certified technician and licensed in California, said. "Our local minimum wage is $15 an hour. They're not offering much more than 15 an hour. In other states, that will be a bunch of money, but in this area, Southern California, it's not cutting it for a lot of people."

Each state differs on how it defines the roles of pharmacy technicians, but mainly, they help fill prescriptions under the supervision of a pharmacist. 

With the worker shortage, pharmacies are limiting hours and shuttering locations — which then hinders patient care. 

"Nobody likes to go to urgent care, wait for two hours to get seen for 15 minutes and then have to wait another hour to get their prescription. Nobody wants that," Mr. Diaz said. "But, with that shortage, that's what's happening."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, some states made strides in allowing pharmacy technicians to do more. Starting in 2017, Idaho allowed pharmacists to delegate inoculation to some pharmacy technicians, and Rhode Island and Utah soon followed.  

Because of the sudden need to vaccinate about 330 million people in the U.S., then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar used the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act to allow any pharmacist to administer COVID-19 vaccines once they became available. The rule was then amended in October 2020 to include pharmacy technicians and pharmacy interns.

Nationally, pharmacy technicians are authorized to administer COVID-19 shots and pediatric vaccinations for children older than 3 under the supervision of pharmacists. 

The PREP Act amendments will expire near the end of 2024, according to HHS, meaning more than half of the nation's states will need to decide whether to allow pharmacy technicians to continue to inoculate patients. 

The past two years have showcased the ability of pharmacy technicians to do more, Mr. Schimmel said, but you can't add a to-do list to people who don't exist. 

"I don't know of a magic bullet to recruit more technicians when you have a constricted labor supply across the entire country," he said.

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