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Pharmacists Seeing Retirement With New Eyes

Mar 28, 2011

IN AN ERA OF ERODING 401(k) PLANS and disappearing pensions, pharmacists, like other professionals, are finding the prospect of retirement daunting. Those who once thought they would be able to retire at 60 are delaying their plans, opting to phase out of the workforce through part-time or consulting work, or planning to work full-time as long as they physically can.

A Long Road

For Karen Smollen, Pharm.D., who works part-time as a medication safety risk analyst at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, retirement has moved to a nebulous horizon. Early in her career, she had hoped to retire at 55 and had reduced her work hours to part-time after the birth of her third child. But with a husband who is now unemployed and college tuitions on the horizon, Smollen, 52, has taken on more hours and believes she will work “indefinitely.”

Above left, Gary Stoehr, Pharm.D., dean of the D’Youville College School of Pharmacy, Buffalo, N.Y.; Above center, David Gray, B.S. Pharm., director of pharmacy at Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria, Minn.; Above right, Karen Smollen, Pharm.D., medication safety risk analyst at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis

The stock market crash could not have come at a more discouraging time for Smollen: She had just invested her inheritance from her mother’s passing when the bottom dropped out.

“It was pretty panic-inducing,” she said. “I toughed it out, and now most of my investments are back to where they were before it happened. But on the other hand, in the past two or three years, they haven’t gained anything either—and that’s with me making contributions. It has been nauseating seeing what happened to my retirement.”

Working for Health Coverage

David Gray, B.S.Pharm, director of pharmacy at Douglas County Hospital in Alexandria, Minn., has delayed his plans to retire, too. Currently 58, he had originally anticipated retiring at 62, but after checking quotes and learning what health insurance premiums would cost to cover the years between 62 and 65 (when he would qualify for Medicare), Gray changed his mind.

“I don’t want to pay $20,000 for health insurance for three years,” he said. “I think that could be true for many people. They have the money, but they just don’t want to use it for that.”

Gray currently works for a local retail chain one day every other month. He said he considered phasing into his retirement by

working half-time there, just to get health insurance, but he is not sure about the physical demands of the work.

“Here at the hospital, when I’m working, I can sit down. In retail, you can’t do that,” he said. “Fortunately, I’m happy where I am.”

At 67, David B. Moore, M.P.A., director of pharmacy at Florida Hospital-DeLand, is also working in part to keep insurance coverage, not for himself, but for his wife, who is still four years from being eligible for Medicare. She works part-time and is covered under his health plan.

Moore anticipates phasing into retirement, as well. “I would like to do some sort of part-time pharmacy work if I’m able. Maybe consulting work, if it’s available,” he said.

An Uncertain Future

For many pharmacists in their 50s and 60s, retirement is a moving target. Gary Stoehr, Pharm.D., dean of the D’Youville College School of Pharmacy in Buffalo, thought he might have retired by now, “But given the market, I’m glad I didn’t. These things come in cycles, and I’m glad I rode it out.

Stoehr had open heart surgery last spring, and health care is as much a concern for him as it is for many other veteran pharmacists. Now, he intends to see D’Youville’s first pharmacy class through to graduation, and he doesn’t have any set plans on when he would like to retire. “It’s like figuring out when your car is going to go,” he noted. “I think that I will just know when it’s the right time.”

Gray isn’t sure when he will be able to retire, either. “Just a year and a half ago, I ran the numbers through my retirement planner, and it said that based on the money I had at the time, I should wait until I’m 70. Now, it’s back to 65.”

Still, Gray continues to be cautious. Gun-shy after losing part of the funds for his youngest child’s college education in the crash, he studies the market with a wary eye.

“I thought I had enough money for my childrens’ educations, but it ran out two years ago for the last child, so now I’m paying as I go,” he said. “I really don’t know how much money I’ll need for retirement. I don’t think it will be a lot, but I can’t say what the dollar amount is.”

Smollen won’t even hazard a guess about retirement. “I wish I felt more optimistic about the economy, and it’s hard to say what the out- come of health care reform will be for me and for other pharmacists,” she said. “But as long as I can work, I’ll be okay. As long as my brain and sanity hold out, I’ll be working forever.”

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