Tess Laxton and Kevin Sexton hadn’t been born when Danny’s Drugs was established in 1966; neither of them would enter the world for more than a decade.
But, today, the two childhood friends are the faces of one of Oneida’s oldest pharmacies, keeping the tradition of hometown drugstores alive.
Laxton and Sexton purchased Danny’s Drugs from its previous owners, pharmacist brothers Danny and Joe Cross, nearly a decade ago, in 2010. By that time, the pharmacy had moved from its longtime location at Oak Grove to its present location on the Four Lane, and both Laxton and Sexton had been full-time pharmacists at the store for several years.
In fact, both started working at Danny’s Drugs while in college, and Laxton said it’s where she learned that she wanted to be a pharmacist.
“He kinda knew what he wanted to do, but I didn’t,” Laxton said of Sexton and their college days. “I started working here in high school, working after school and on Saturdays. But I didn’t want to do this, until I left (for college).”
Sexton got his start at the pharmacy simply because it was where his family had always done business.
“I had gotten accepted into pharmacy school, and I was going towards that,” he said. “This was just where we’d always gotten our medications, so I came back here and just asked if they might have a spot for me. And so it began.”
Danny’s Drugs was established in 1966, by Harold Cross. It began on the opposite side of the Omedco from where it ended up, and was one of the last old-fashioned small-town pharmacies — complete with a grill and milkshakes.
“Most kids from school would walk down there on their lunch and eat lunch there,” Laxton said. “I wish I could’ve seen it back then.”
That original building eventually burned. Cross and Dr. Bruce Coffey partnered to bring the pharmacy back on the corner of Main Street and Litton Road, but the days of the Danny’s Drugs grill were over.
“We’ve had so many people say we should bring it back,” Laxton said. But, Sexton added, “I talked to Danny about that one time. He said it was an awful lot of headache and not much profitability, really.”
In the early days, Harold Cross ran the store without a full-time pharmacist on board. His son, Danny, was completing pharmacy school at the time.
“Back in those days, they would have hours posted, saying, ‘Hey, we will have a pharmacist here on Tuesday, from eight until whenever,’ or something like that,” Sexton said. “So, if you had to get a prescription filled, you waited until Tuesday and did it then.”
Once Danny Cross graduated pharmacy school, he became the store’s first full-time pharmacist. He was later joined by his brothers David and Joe, as well as Bill Dunlap and Mike Baker. Both of the latter remain pharmacists in Scott County today — Dunlap at Plateau Drug Center and Baker at Scott County Pharmacy.
In 2005, Danny’s Drugs migrated north, leaving Omedco for the first time and moving into the brand-new shopping center by Lay Family Furniture, which had just been completed by LaStanCo properties. That same year, Sexton graduated pharmacy school. Laxton graduated one year after him, and the two became mainstays at the store.
“Danny and Joe started to cut back on their hours,” Laxton said. “We talked about (purchasing the pharmacy) a lot. That was kinda always the plan. Danny and Joe knew they would be wanting to retire soon, and they kinda had us under their wing while we were going through school.”
The two finalized their purchase of the store in 2010. Nearly a decade later, they say that owning a business as a partnership where both partners are equally involved in the operation isn’t too much of an obstacle — which is probably mostly due to the fact that they were friends long before they were pharmacists.
“I can see where it would be (a problem),” Sexton said. “But from how we operate on the business side, the things I like to do, she doesn’t like to do, and the things she likes to do, I don’t like to do. So it’s very complimentary.”
Laxton said trust is the key.
“You have to have a lot of trust in someone,” she said. “I have a lot of trust in Kevin and I think he does in me, so it works out well.”
The friendship actually goes back to middle school. While Laxton went to Oneida Schools all her life, Sexton bounced around — eventually graduating from Scott High, where his mother was an educator. But he moved to Oneida Middle School in seventh grade, and stayed at Oneida until midway through his junior year of high school. That’s where the two met.
“We’ve been good friends since we were 12 years old,” he said. “It’s not like a business partnership just fell into our lap one day. We’ve been good friends for years and years.”
Keeping with an unwritten tradition of sorts among Oneida’s independent pharmacies, Laxton and Sexton both say they get along well with their competitors in town.
It’s not that way everywhere. Sexton points to cutthroat relationships between competing pharmacies in some neighboring communities. In Scott County, though, the pharmacies tend to try to help one another.
That’s a sentiment Terry Roark, who — along with his wife, Mary — owns Roark’s Pharmacy, echoed when he spoke to the Independent Herald for a Business Spotlight story two years ago.
“I talk with Terry Roark pretty regular, and Brent (Dunlap) talks with everybody just about every day,” Sexton said. “I’ve filled in at their stores and they’ve filled in here. All the pharmacists who came up through Danny, and plus Terry, we all work together.”
Sexton and Laxton have seen some changes in the pharmaceutical industry since they graduated almost 15 years ago. One of the biggest is with insurances.
“The downhill started when Obamacare took effect,” Sexton said. “Like with anything bureaucratic, they didn’t have a long goal.”
One of the mandates of Obamacare was that a price change of more than five percent for generic medications would have to be approved by a congressional oversight committee.
“So all the drug companies said, ‘That’s fine,’ and the day before it took effect, they all raised their prices,” Sexton said. “So a medication that you’d pay $1.37 for the day before, all of a sudden you had to pay $95. They decided they were going to raise their prices so high that they would never have to raise them again. And that’s had an effect on everything.”
Another big change has been the opioid epidemic. As Congress and state government have grappled with ways to control the crisis, mandates have been placed on local pharmacies.
“It’s put a lot of work on us, for sure,” Laxton said. “I don’t know that what they’re implementing is really targeting the right area to help the problem, but I feel like there’s been a lot more put on us to try to police it. Not that we shouldn’t, to a degree.”
Both Sexton and Laxton recognize the problems posed by the opioid crisis. It’s not overblown, Sexton said.
“The big media would focus on the meth epidemic,” he said. “It’s sort of a darling for them because you can put a face on it. But the opioids is much more of an issue.”
To that end, Danny’s Drugs began cracking down on opioid prescriptions even before the federal mandates kicked in. In fact, Sexton estimates that the pharmacy rejects more opioid prescriptions than it fills — although their customers who legitimately need the drugs can rest assurred that their prescriptions will be filled.
“Word kinda gets out, so we don’t have folks who come like they used to,” Sexton said. “Our percentage of opioid prescriptions is well below the national average.”
The part that Sexton and Laxton try to control are the prescriptions that are obviously an attempt to skirt the law. Sexton recalls one incident where a patient from Kentucky brought in an opioid prescription that had been written by a pain management physician from Colorado.
“He’s from Colorado, treating someone from Somerset, Ky., who is trying to get a prescription filled at Danny’s Drugs in Oneida, Tenn.,” Sexton said. “What part of that makes sense? What we did is we said, if you’re from outside our 50-mile area and we can’t verify your prescription, we’re going to stop filling it. If you’re coming from 400 miles away to bring a prescription to us, why would you do that?”
The key, Laxton said, is discretion.
“There’s a clinical judgment on our part,” she said. “There might be a situation come up and if you just looked at it in black and white, you’d say, ‘I’m not filling this.’ But you have to consider the circumstances because there are times where it needs to be filled.”
One unique part of Danny’s Drugs is its “robot” that fills prescriptions automatically. Laxton and Sexton embrace technology, and customers who call in their medications have their refills automatically processed.
“Even if it’s 9 o’clock at night, it automatically sends it to the insurance company,” Sexton said. “If the insurance approves it, the robot automatically fills the prescription. Probably 60 percent of our prescriptions are filled that way. It’s just an accuracy thing. There is always going to be human error, but the more we can take humans out of the picture, the more accurate it’s going to be, and that’s just an added measure of safety for folks that, when they come in, it’s an added measure of confidence that they’re getting what they’re supposed to get.”
Danny’s Drugs is more than just filling prescriptions, though.
“There are people who come in and just want to have their blood pressure checked, and we do that,” Laxton said. “We do some compounding, including for animals. We do counseling on medications, trying to help people get their medications in sync and keep on track with their therapy.”
Sexton is an ordained preacher; gospel study guides line the shelves in his office in the back of the pharmacy. Both he and Laxton said their business is guided by their faith.
“Our CPA is a deacon at a church in Kingston, our financial advisor is Kyle Keeton (pastor at Black Oak Baptist Church in West Oneida), so everything we do is surrounded by Christian principles and practices,” Sexton said. “With any business, you could probably make more money if you wanted to walk in a grayer area, but the Lord has been good to us. He’s taken care of us, and we try to take care of our employees and our customers. As Solomon said, ‘We’re looking for neither riches nor poverty.”
Added Laxton, “Obviously we want to make money to take care of our own families, but at the end of the day we just want to take care of people.”