The approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in late 2020 marked a pivotal moment in our ongoing global health crisis, and subsequent approvals for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines further illuminate the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s incredibly encouraging to see the percentage of vaccinated adults in the United States continue to rise. But to truly turn the corner in the fight against the pandemic, COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine education must be accessible to everyone — particularly for vulnerable and underserved populations and rural areas.
The steady progress of the national vaccination movement can be largely attributed to the tireless efforts of providers on the front lines, as well as the activation of pharmacies through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. The nation should celebrate the inspiring stories from local pharmacists across the United States.
For example, Apothecary Shoppe, a member of AmerisourceBergen’s Good Neighbor Pharmacy network in Salt Lake City, Utah, has gone above and beyond for its 3,700 patients living with HIV. Owner Kevin DeMass partnered with local organizations to provide education and communication that the COVID-19 vaccine was available at his store and is now routinely hosting clinics to inoculate these immunocompromised patients. For at-risk and under-resourced communities across the country, pharmacies have emerged as a coveted health care destination, providing trusted and reliable care for patients, promoting more equitable vaccine access, and reducing pressure on local health systems and physicians in their region.
One of the most important things this pandemic has demonstrated is that we should build upon the greater realization that pharmacists clearly improve access to many critical health care services – including, but not limited to, immunizations. First, pharmacists need full authority to administer all FDA-approved or authorized for emergency use vaccines, including those for COVID-19. Under the nation’s current public health emergency, pharmacists have universal authority to administer COVID-19 vaccines in every state and Washington, D.C., as well as every tribe and territory.
However, in normal times, many state laws place varying restrictions on the types and methods of vaccinations they can administer. In some states, for instance, pharmacists can only administer certain vaccines after a provider writes a prescription. The PHE overrides these restrictions for the purposes of COVID-19 vaccines, but that declaration is temporary, and we anticipate federal and state governments will reinstate restrictions once the PHE is lifted. These state laws, or lack thereof, are neither in the best interest of patients nor public health and should be modified to authorize pharmacists to provide and administer all CDC–recommended or FDA-authorized vaccines.
Second, pharmacists need to be permanently recognized as providers at state and federal levels and by all payers — especially Medicare — so that they can provide the same care to many Medicare beneficiaries that they are able to provide to other patient populations. Members of Congress in both parties have long supported this pharmacist recognition in Medicare, including in 2017-2018, when 55 U.S. senators and 296 U.S. representatives supported this reform.
The aim of recognizing pharmacists as eligible to provide immunizations and other health care services (such as diabetes management, blood pressure screenings and point-of-care testing) to Medicare beneficiaries in medically underserved areas remains even more apt today. H.R. 2759/S. 1362, the Pharmacy and Medically Underserved Areas Enhancement Act, was reintroduced in late April by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.), along with 21 original and bipartisan House cosponsors. It is the leading bill that would rectify the current absence of a permanent reimbursement structure for Medicare to directly reimburse pharmacists for providing this care for seniors.
AmerisourceBergen has long supported state and federal legislation that allows pharmacists to practice at the top of their license and get reimbursed for doing so. We will continue to advocate for the enactment of this important bill, which would benefit pharmacists and patients, especially America’s seniors in underserved communities, now and in the future.
While we’ve made considerable progress in the COVID-19 vaccination movement, data continues to show that marginalized communities and people of color are still receiving vaccines at unacceptably low rates, particularly in the most vulnerable areas, despite increasing willingness to accept inoculation.
We know that pharmacies are not only trusted by their patients, but also represent some of the most accessible sites of care in the country — about 90 percent of people in the United States live within five miles of a community pharmacy, including independently owned pharmacies, traditional drugstores and pharmacies in grocery stores and mass retailers. In addition, independent community pharmacies are establishing partnerships in their communities to break down barriers and connect with hard-to-reach populations. We know of pharmacies working to support homeless encampments and domestic violence shelters, partnering with churches and their congregations to provide vaccine education, hosting clinics with local school districts, and more. Given this level of trust, convenience, and community engagement, pharmacists are particularly well suited to address these vaccine disparities.
It’s time for state governments to pass legislation that permanently removes all excessive restrictions on pharmacist-administered vaccines, and it’s time for Congress to permanently recognize pharmacists as providers within Medicare by passing the bipartisan H.R. 2759/S. 1362. Enactment into law would ensure pharmacies can continue to administer COVID-19 vaccines to patients in need after the national public health emergency is lifted. Pharmacists’ critical role in our nation’s health care system has never been clearer, and their value is demonstrated day in and day out. To truly move past the COVID-19 pandemic and equip us to better address both crises of the future and daily health care needs, we must empower pharmacists to care for their patients and fully utilize their education, training and dedication to their communities through these two actions.
Rich Tremonte is the president of Community & Specialty Pharmacy at AmerisourceBergen.
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