While I was working for the VA Health Resource Center’s Pharmacy Customer Care call center in Waco (two others are in Topeka, KS, and Black Hills, SD), I spoke to more than a few veterans who were bent out of shape at having gotten me rather than their local VA pharmacy. I can understand why they would feel like victims of a bait and switch operation. Just look at the image below, a screenshot of the telephone directory entry for the Central Texas System pharmacies, with locations in Temple, Waco, and Austin:
Just looking at the entry would tend to make veterans believe they were about to call the Central Texas VA System pharmacy or at least one of them. The physical location adjacent to the telephone number would lead me to that conclusion. Certainly, I would not suspect I was about to be routed to a call center that takes calls from VA pharmacies up and down the East Coast, Texas, and Louisiana.
My confidence that I was about to get my local pharmacy wouldn’t change when I called the main number (254-778-4811) and just used the menu rather than the extension. (Many vets and their families don’t bother with looking up any numbers in the VA’s online directory. They just call the facility’s main number and work their way through the telephone menu.) If I opted to use the menu, and after getting through all the howdy-doody material always loaded at the front of the interactive voice recordings, the recording would begin offering me menu choices. Temple’s says, “For pharmacy, press 1.” Then, if I press one, the recording says to press 1 to use the auto refill line or “to speak to a pharmacy representative, press 2.” There’s nothing–nothing–that would lead me to believe that I’m about to get a national call center that handles dozens of pharmacies’ calls. Finally, when I press 2, I begin to smell a bait and switch when the PCC recording says, “Thank you for calling the Department of Veterans Affairs Pharmacy Customer Care Center.” That’s still nice and vague, though. Temple’s pharmacy is also part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the moniker “Pharmacy Customer Care” could apply to a local pharmacy just as well as a national one. Some veterans catch on right away and flat-out ask if they’re speaking to a rep from their local pharmacy or to some guy at a call center somewhere. Others don’t catch on for quite a while. I’ve had veterans ask me about it, sounding absolutely surprised when they found out they were talking to a national call center. I’d look at their call histories, however, and see they’d called several, if not many times already, apparently assuming they were talking to their local people. Nope.
Nobody likes being fooled, particularly when they suspect that the place at which they’ve ended up is just a little less capable than their own pharmacies. Considering that PCC cannot make decisions for or commit local pharmacies to any course of action in non-routine situations, those suspicions are correct. PCC is a middle-man, a go-between. For routine requests and medication needs, that’s fine. Things percolate right along, and the certified and licensed professionals at local VA pharmacies can concentrate on other matters rather than routine ones. When situations are not so routine, things can get a little dicey with a middle-man in the way (see the discussion here). Local VA medical centers like Temple should be more explicit when they provide options in their interactive voice recordings, and Pharmacy Customer Care should identify itself as a national call center. Furthermore, PCC should have a streamlined process to get veterans to their local pharmacies on their first call about a non-routine issue anytime veterans request it–even when call center employees would rather not–a streamlined process that both the veteran and contact reps know about and can actually use.