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2/24/2004

VA Pharmacy Technicians Step Up in Status

Cheryl A. Thompson

A new law affecting the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) accords pharmacy technicians the same status in personnel-related matters that pharmacists have had since 1989.

Known as hybrid Title 38 status, the designation means most immediately that the hiring, firing, and promoting of pharmacy technicians will be handled by local pharmacy managers and VA Pharmacy Benefits Management (PBM) Strategic Health Care Group and not by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees standard civil-service positions for the entire federal government, said VA's Jeff Ramirez.

Ramirez is the PBM's chief of management and clinical information systems and takes the lead on pharmacy personnel issues in VA.

Title 38 refers to the portion of the United States Code covering the VA, and hybrid refers to Title 5, which covers the Office of Personnel Management and, as such, offers whistleblower and other protections to employees. Physicians, dentists, and nurses employed by VA have full Title 38 status.

Quicker hiring. Involvement of the Office of Personnel Management in personnel issues delays by "weeks to months" the process of hiring someone even though a job description for the vacant position has been posted and the person meets the qualifications for that position, Ramirez said.

This delay had created a tremendous problem, he said, in the hiring of pharmacists before their status was changed to hybrid Title 38.

"That is actually becoming quite an issue with technicians as well," Ramirez said. "Although [pharmacy technician] is not a degreed position, pharmacy technicians are taking an increasing amount of responsibility with the shortage of pharmacists."

VA employs about 3260 pharmacy technicians and more than 5000 pharmacists, he said.

Up-to-date standards. Ramirez said the other major result of the change in status is that the PBM can now write the standards stating the qualifications for various pharmacy technician positions and classification of pharmacy technicians in the civil-service grades.

The Office of Personnel Management, he said, had not updated the technicians' classification standard since about 1972. Thus, it did not recognize the special roles, such as i.v. admixture preparation and clinical data gathering, that pharmacy technicians now hold in VA.

With an out-of-date classification standard, Ramirez said, VA had problems maintaining a competitive pay scale for pharmacy technicians. So the PBM relied on several options it had, including the use of special salary rates in localities where surveys had shown a substantial difference in wages compared with community pharmacies.

"Ninety percent of what the VA does now is ambulatory health care," he said. VA's primary competitors for pharmacy technicians "are the Wal-Marts and the Walgreens of the world. We never meet their salaries, but we come close."

Also, because of reliance on the Office of Personnel Management's standards, pharmacy technicians sometimes earned less than other civil-service employees performing the same functions.

"In the Title 5 series, we have a pharmacy technician . . . who does the exact same things as a purchasing agent in a different series, and they can't get paid the same amount of money," Ramirez said. "The purchasing agent makes more."

Timeline for changes. Changing the standards will take time, Ramirez said, particularly since 13 allied health professionals in addition to pharmacy technicians gained hybrid Title 38 status with enactment of the law, and all the new standards must be approved by VA Human Resources Management.

Pharmacy technicians eyeing VA as a possible employer will notice the first difference within six months, when Ramirez said the new guidance on hiring will be released. He said the PBM's years of experience in writing qualification and classification standards for pharmacists should keep the technician standards from stalling.

The law. The change to hybrid Title 38 status for pharmacy technicians came through the November 25 enactment of the Department of Veterans Affairs Long-Term Care and Personnel Authorities Enhancement Act of 2003.

As with the change in status for pharmacists, Ramirez said, the change for pharmacy technicians required several years of efforts by the PBM.