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In Memoriam: Morris Gortler

MG Pharmacy has been a mainstay in the northern Phoenix community for over 35 years. As the pharmacy's founder and owner, Morris has always been known for going above and beyond for his patients. Morris Gortler passed away unexpectedly in August 2022. This tribute is written by his son.

Morris Gortler and his family spent years running away from Nazi persecution. Eventually, they ended up in a Polish displaced persons camp run by the United States. It was there that Morris learned English and American culture. Morris and his family were fortunate – they were eligible to migrate to the U.S. Not everyone there was so lucky.

In 1949, Morris and his family arrived in Arizona by train via Louisiana as war refugees. Arizona was a much different place back then. There was only a tiny fraction of the population that exists here today (about 50,000 people in the whole state). At the time, Morris had no idea he would become an important part of Arizona’s history - and its largely ignored pharmacy history.

As a refugee, Morris took to any job he could get. That included working as a custodian, a farmhand, and even running deliveries, all while polishing his skills in English by listening to an AM radio he shared with his parents and brother in a small apartment. In those days there were no such things as food stamps or immigrant aid; newcomers had to work for everything and learn to fit into American life.

Morris knew about the American Dream from U.S. soldiers he had met in Poland so, he set forth to pursue it. Arizona was not rife with opportunity, but out of all of the possibilities, he chose healthcare. Morris graduated as a pharmacist in 1960 from the University of Arizona in Tucson. He later married his wife Marcelle and started building his life working two jobs at various chain drugstores, including Globe, followed by Walgreens at Christown Mall. After hours and weekends, he worked at an independent pharmacy. He worked hard but was happy, and his efforts to do anything to help his patients became legendary across town.

By the 1980s, corporate pharmacy chains were already making life difficult for pharmacists - decades before PBMs, unrelenting training requirements, predatory auditing, and unnecessary, invasive oversite by state and federal agencies. While Morris still loved his patients and the fundamentals of pharmacy, he plainly saw the faults in the system. He wanted to run pharmacy his way and was sure he could do a better job at it. One of his patients at Walgreens, who was a dentist and also an immigrant to the country, had been telling him for months about a medical building he was constructing where he planned to include all types of dental and medical specialties and could use a pharmacy. Morris initially refused to consider the opportunity several times out of fear of the unknown. Ultimately his wife Marcelle strongly encouraged him to change his mind, and he eventually opened MG Pharmacy in North Phoenix which has existed since 1986.

Morris had his own pharmacy. It was his American dream. The first dollar he ever made still hangs on the pharmacy wall from his first day, when he filled only a single prescription with the use of a manual (non-electric) typewriter.

Relentless oversight by the Arizona state board, ACCHSS, and PBM bureaucrats made his final years in practice miserable. It seemed as if they viewed smaller pharmacies without corporate attorneys as easy prey for especially brutal inspections. For one 12-month period, he was subjected to seven different hours-long inspections by the Arizona board of pharmacy, which ultimately turned up nothing more than a single prescription that failed to name the individual calling it in.

Additional bureaucracy caused him to constantly lose patients when their jobs and/or insurance companies changed - frustrating both his patients and himself.

After owning MG Pharmacy for almost 35 years, Morris finally decided to step back and retire to a life of watching old movies, being a husband, grandfather, and the owner of an especially affectionate female red-nosed Pitbull named Cinnamon. He reveled in taking daily naps, relaxing outdoors, driving, and admiring his restored classic 1966 Impala and, as a lifetime political conservative, watching the news. He had looked forward to traveling with his wife, but the COVID pandemic prevented that. Sadly, his brief retirement was cut short by an accident in his home. Morris passed away on August 15th, 2022.

Morris’ pharmacy legacy continues to live on through his son, but the issues he faced as an independent pharmacy owner in Arizona continue as well. The state’s own ACCCHS plan refuses to contract with most of Arizona's independent pharmacy owners, preferring to do business with chain or mail-order pharmacies owned by out-of-state entities. The problem of patient steering away from local independent pharmacies continues to be an issue - one that Pharmacists United for Transparency’s (PUTT’s) Any Willing Provider (AWP) legislation could have eliminated, allowing patients to experience the safety of continuity by keeping their chosen prescriber and pharmacy. Unfortunately, legislation of this nature has never made it out of committee in the state.

This sort of illogical policy and lack of medical freedom is a serious problem in Arizona. State officials which Morris, his patients, and his family often attempted to contact showed mainly indifference to small-business pharmacy problems. MG Pharmacy is now one of less than 100 independent non-compounding "traditional" pharmacies in the state of Arizona - a state that counts 8 million residents. This level of local pharmacy-to-patient ratio is atypical, and possibly the worst in the United States.

Morris became a member of Pharmacists United for Truth & Transparency (PUTT) at its inception in 2011. He wanted nothing more than to care for his patients and knew that the only way that could continue was through changing the system. From fighting for freedom to embodying the American dream, he strongly believed that no progress could happen without hard work and perseverance. It is a tribute to Morris that MG Pharmacy continues to survive in Arizona. Let’s not let his efforts be in vain.


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