Kaiser pharmacy users see long waits

Computer upgrade presents challenges for employees, members

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Pharmacy Tips

Mike Kinard, vice president for ambulatory care services at Kaiser Permanente, said pharmacy wait times will likely be longer than normal for at least a few more weeks.

In the meantime, Kinard offers these tips:

• Wait times tend to be shorter earlier in the day.

• Consider dropping off prescriptions and returning later that day or the next day to pick up the filled order.

• The automated refill line is experiencing high volume, so orders are taking longer to arrive by mail — about seven to 10 business days. Make sure you have enough medication on hand if you use mail order.

Stephen Bryant waited 2½ hours after knee surgery to get his prescription.

Lynn Rullman waited an hour to place her prescription order before leaving empty-handed.

And after a fruitless hourlong wait, Suna Shaik will use vacation time Friday in order to get her EpiPen prescription filled.

Kaiser Permanente members across Clark County and the rest of its Northwest region are experiencing pharmacy wait times significantly longer than usual — the result of a system upgrade implemented earlier this month. And Kaiser officials say it will take a few more weeks before those wait times show any substantial improvement.

"I've been out in a lot of our pharmacy waiting rooms talking to patients. I want to apologize to them," said Mike Kinard, vice president for ambulatory care services at Kaiser Permanente. "The kind of wait times people are experiencing in our pharmacies is unacceptable by our standards."

About three weeks ago, Kaiser Permanente rolled out a new pharmacy system in about one-third of the region. Two weeks ago, the system went live in Clark County, where Kaiser has about 100,000 members, and the rest of the region.

The new system is used across the country and replaced Kaiser's 25-year-old system that was nearing the end of its life, Kinard said. The system performed well during testing, and employees were well-trained on the new system, he said.

The new system, however, has more program components for employees to learn. After 25 years with the old system, employees had figured out how to be most efficient. They're still learning on this system, Kinard said.

"We're definitely on a learning curve. There's no question about that," Kinard said. "We're working really hard to lower those wait times so people will experience what they used to experience."

In addition, the system is having trouble with orders placed by Washington residents — a result of one system processing orders from two different states, Kinard said. Kaiser implemented a system fix Monday night that should correct the problem. The fix is being tested at a couple pharmacies this week and, if effective, will roll out elsewhere next week, he said.

In the meantime, patients should expect longer-than-normal wait times for the next several weeks. In other regions, it has taken about four to six weeks on the new system before substantial improvements to wait times are recognized, Kinard said.

Phone, mail affected

The system change affects all areas of Kaiser pharmacies — the physical pharmacies at clinics, the phone reordering system and the mail-order system, Kinard said.

Patients are waiting an hour or more to get prescriptions filled at pharmacies, rather than the traditional 10- to 15-minute wait. The phone system is getting bogged down with callers trying to figure out why prescriptions are taking longer than normal to fill.

And the refill center responsible for mailing prescriptions is taking one to two weeks to turn around orders, as opposed to the couple of days people are used to, Kinard said.

Lynn Rullman went to the Cascade Park Kaiser pharmacy to fill three prescriptions Monday evening. The waiting room was full. People were standing along the walls, down the hallway and outside, she said. Eye rolling and heavy sighs filled the room.

After waiting about an hour, there were still 22 people with numbers ahead of Rullman — and that was just to place her order. She also noticed people in the express line, reserved for those who have phoned in prescriptions in advance, were waiting about an hour to pick up their medications.

Rullman left the pharmacy and tried the Kaiser phone line. After about 15 minutes on hold, she was able to get through and place her prescription order via phone.

Suna Shaik recently noticed her EpiPen had expired in July, not September like she thought. Shaik is highly allergic to bee stings and spider bites and uses the injections to counter the allergic reaction. She headed to the Salmon Creek Kaiser pharmacy during her lunch break Tuesday to fill her prescription for a new pen.

Shaik waited an hour before she had to leave and return to work. There were still 20 people ahead of her in line.

Shaik tried phoning in her order, but the phone line had shut down early. She then tried to place the order online, only to learn she couldn't since the EpiPen prescription was new, rather than a refill. Only refill requests can be made online.

Shaik canceled outdoor plans for the rest of the week and said she will use vacation time Friday to go sit in the pharmacy waiting room.

"I can guarantee my lunch hour isn't going to make it after what I saw (Tuesday)," she said.

Stephen Bryant had knee surgery Monday. After the procedure, he waited 2½ hours in the Kaiser Sunnybrook pharmacy in Clackamas, Ore., to get his medications before he could go home.

"I can't believe how long it took, especially after just getting out of knee surgery," he said. "I was not in the mood to be waiting."

Kinard said pharmacy staff is working hard to improve service and wait times. In other regions, it has taken about 60 to 90 days on the new system before wait times are back down to what they were before the switch, Kinard said.

"We will absolutely get our service back to something that is the high service everyone expects and wants," Kinard said.