Nearly $1 million in pot revenue passed to Downstate drug stores to help ease coronavirus crunch

Customers buy marijuana products at Rise Joliet, a dispensary in southwest suburban Joliet, on the first day of legalized recreational cannabis in Illinois, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The Illinois Comptroller’s office announced Friday that rural and small-town pharmacies being “squeezed” by low reimbursements will receive a combined $946,000 in payments from the state this week.

Illinois cannabis tax revenues that were earmarked for the state’s rainy day fund will now be used to help rural pharmacies in Illinois as the state grapples with the coronavirus outbreak.

The Illinois Comptroller’s office announced Friday that rural and small-town pharmacies being “squeezed” by low reimbursements will receive a combined $946,000 in payments from the state this week.

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza said her office is using cannabis revenues to give the 80 pharmacies servicing rural communities throughout Illinois their payments ahead of schedule.

“Our ongoing effort to support rural pharmacies that are being squeezed out by unfair competition and managed care policies now takes on added importance as communities fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus,” Mendoza said in a statement.

Under state law, a portion of the taxes Illinois collects from cannabis sales goes into the state’s rainy day fund, the cash reserves designed to provide a safety net during fiscal difficulties. Now those funds are now being used to make payments to independently-owned pharmacies.

The payments are a part of a program the state already implemented to help the pharmacies in rural Illinois that get low reimbursements from the state’s managed care program or may be “squeezed” by companies that set prices for drugs.

While the state began giving payments to the “critical access pharmacies” beginning in July, the payment this week was moved up ahead of schedule to provide needed relief.

Garth Reynolds, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, said in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, independent drug stores asked the comptroller’s office for some cash relief.

“This payment is essential with helping to keep their doors open,” Reynolds said. “And now, right now, as the entire state and the world is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, community pharmacies are the front line in helping make sure that patients get access to medications.”

Unlike hospitals throughout the country that are seeing shortages of medical equipment and supplies such as ventilators and face masks, Reynolds said pharmacies in Illinois are not experiencing any shortage of medications.

Reynolds said he encourages people to use drive-through and delivery services if the pharmacies near them offer it, to limit the potential exposure of the coronavirus to pharmacists.

“We are recommending for patients to please be patient as pharmacists are trying to assess a lot of requests right now,” Reynolds said.

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