Walgreens puts image on line to rouse community

CHICAGO: Drugstore chain Walgreens is turning what first appeared a

PR gaffe into a PR windfall as it lobbies the state of Illinois to

abandon recent Medicaid prescription-reimbursement rate cuts.



On March 29, Walgreens announced that it would reduce pharmacy hours in

30 Illinois stores because recent cuts in state

prescription-reimbursement rates for Medicaid recipients made those

stores unprofitable. Eighteen of the stores are in Chicago, mostly in

poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the south and west sides.



Walgreens' decision sparked a wave of protests from community groups and

prompted the Rev. Jesse Jackson to urge the company to reconsider.



However, Walgreens appeared less than surprised at the negative

response.



'We anticipated a mixed reaction,' said Michael Polzin, the company's

manager of media relations.



Company CEO L. Daniel Jorndt quickly accepted an invitation to meet with

Jackson and others. Shortly after that meeting on March 31, he told a

South Side Baptist church congregation that Walgreens would postpone the

pharmacy closings for 30 days while it tried to get the state to raise

reimbursement levels. His speech was shown on all the local nightly news

broadcasts.



The company had been haggling with the state since November. 'After

seeing months of no progress, we felt we had to take some action,' said

Polzin.



Raising community concerns about the new state policy 'was our intention

all along,' he said.



According to Chicago PR people, Walgreens is likely to see little

long-term loss of business as a result of the incident. 'It can be

quickly forgotten because they acted quickly,' said one Chicago PR

veteran.



Referring to Walgreens' success in inspiring Chicago community groups to

pressure the state to act, Gene Reineke, who runs Hill & Knowlton's

Chicago office, said: 'They may have brought the issue to a head. In the

long-term, it may work out in Walgreens' favor.'



Added Polzin, 'I don't think we have to recover from anything.'



Company officials will be meeting with community groups this month to

garner additional support. Walgreens is working with Chicago-based

Danielle Ashley Advertising and Public Relations on the issue. It does

not have an agency of record.



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