On a stretch of empty highway in remote southwest Wyoming, Bryce Habel is driving his delivery route. A spring snowstorm is dumping ice pellets over the sagebrush desert.
“The roads are very unpredictable,” he said. “Whether they’re open or not. Whether they’re cleared.”
Habel has come to know these roads over the past two months. Along with two coworkers, he has driven this same, 80-mile round trip trek almost every weekday making dozens of deliveries.
But they aren’t dropping off Amazon packages or pet supplies — they’re delivering heart medication, insulin or asthma inhalers to hamlets and towns in the Bridger Valley.
Home to about 6,000 people, Bridger Valley recently lost its only pharmacy after Shopko filled for bankruptcy in January. Habel was the pharmacist there. He lost his job, but he couldn’t ditch his former customers.
“We couldn’t let them go without their insulin,” Habel said, driving along the highway past small homestead ranches and low hills. “We couldn’t let them go without medication that’s keeping them alive.”
Bridger Valley now joins more than 600 other communities in rural America that have lost their easy access to prescribed medication since 2003. Whether it’s big box stores cutting costs or family-owned businesses getting hit by rising medication expenses, the result is often the same.
“Losing the pharmacy also means losing the services of a pharmacist,” said Keith Mueller, head of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Iowa. “They are somebody that members of the community can go to and say, ‘What about this drug or that drug?’ Or, ‘I’m experiencing cold symptoms — what do you recommend?’”
Pharmacies are a cornerstone of the health care infrastructure in small, rural towns, Mueller said. Without them, people have to travel further to get the medication they need or order it online.
Habel didn’t like the idea of his customers — especially elderly ones — driving on snowy, rural highways in winter to get their prescription medication. So he began the delivery service in February, around the time the Shopko pharmacy closed.
At first, they were doing the drive once or twice a week. Habel estimates the cost of gas for a trip was around $8.
“We were doing it out of our own pockets,” he said.
While the delivery service was helping his former customers get the prescription medication they needed, it wasn’t helping Habel’s bottom line. He has a wife and three children.
“I’d definitely say it’s been one of the most stressful times in my life,” he said. “Just the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen or what we’re doing.”
Soon after the Shopko pharmacy closed, Habel received another job offer. It paid well but required him to move hundreds of miles away. He declined the job offer and moved forward with a plan to open and run a pharmacy in Bridger Valley.
“Out here, people just care about you. They wave,” he said. “Me and my wife have just fallen in love with it. We want our kids to grow up in that environment.”
The South Lincoln Medical Center in Kemmerer caught wind of the idea. It offered to open a pharmacy in the community and hire Habel as its manager, while paying him and his coworkers to continue their delivery service until construction of the pharmacy is complete. Habel took the offer and the Uinta Drug Pharmacy is set to open in May.
“I think on opening day some of the stress will go away,” he said.
Habel is looking forward to getting behind a counter once again, filling prescriptions and chatting with the people of Bridger Valley about their lives, families and health.
“As a pharmacist I just care about people. That’s who I am,” Habel said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.