A state-run prison pharmacy in Ontario serves aging, growing clientele

The Old Caldwell building in Ontario is the new home for a Oregon Department of Corrections pharmacy. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – From the street, the old Caldwell Building is a low-profile structure tucked into an out-of-the-way part of Ontario.

The unobtrusive sight belies a hub of activity inside, where 14 employees work to provide medications for inmates at eight correctional centers in Oregon, a job that’s growing as the state’s large prison population ages.

The pharmacy – which filled 300,000 prescriptions in 2018 – finished its move to leased space in the Southwest 3rd Avenue building on March 15, said Phil Montgomery, state Department of Corrections pharmacy manager.

The pharmacy formerly operated in a warehouse on the Snake River Correctional Institution grounds but was running out of room, he said.  

Montgomery said the pharmacy had already weathered seven “small expansions” at the prison warehouse before making the move to Ontario.

“It was kind of like trying to do a Model T assembly line in seven small offices,” said Montgomery. 

Montgomery said budget restraints hampered efforts to expand the pharmacy at the old site, and the price tag to build a new pharmacy was steep.

“Over $5 million and we are not even talking about the land. So, it makes sense for us to lease,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery said the Department of Corrections inked a deal with building owner Ann Rupe for “under $7,000 a month.”

“We went from 2,000 square feet to 5,700 square feet and we have about 1,400 square feet upstairs,” said Montgomery. 

The pharmacy supplies medications for inmates at Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City, Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Two Rivers Correctional institution in Umatilla, Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, South Fork Forest Camp in Tillamook, Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview and Washington County Community Corrections.

The Ontario pharmacy is one of two managed by the state. The other is in Salem.

Montgomery said the two pharmacies issued more than 500,000 orders in 2018. 

“One of the reasons we had to expand was because our medication orders are increasing, and part of that is due to the aging population of inmates,” said Montgomery.

He said the Department of Corrections is mandated to “give as good as health care as they do in the community.”

The pharmacy fills about 2,000 orders a day, he said.

“We get our medications in bulk. Then we repackage them into blister cards. The reason we do that is, one, for security and for the patient, so they remember,” he said.

Montgomery said the two corrections pharmacies are the only ones in Oregon authorized by federal law to repackage bulk medications.

“We have two machines (that do the repackaging) and we do about 80 percent of our orders on those two, but we do do some hand packing,” said Montgomery.

A typical day inside the building, Montgomery said, is a “hub of activity.”

Unlike a regular pharmacy, customers can’t walk into the front door to get a prescription filled.

“There are very strict regulations about who comes and goes into the pharmacy,” said Amber Campbell, Snake River public affairs officer.

Montgomery said an array of security measures are in place at the pharmacy, although he declined to discuss specifics. 

The understated nature of the new location was intentional, said Montgomery.

“We wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible,” said Montgomery. 

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377. 

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