The COVID-19 crisis is bad – really bad. But long before COVID-19 hit, our nation was beginning to come to grips with a fundamental reality: Not everyone in America has equal access to health care. In fact, people of color and individuals in rural areas are disproportionately impacted by lack of access to health care. The pandemic has made this worse.
For many people in rural areas, and in many inner-city areas, the local pharmacist is the only link to health care. During the COVID-19 crisis, governors and state legislatures, as well as some federal agencies, have realized this with increasing clarity. Pharmacists have been asked to do COVID-19 testing, and we’ve stepped up. We’ve been asked us to address immunization needs of children and adolescents, and we’ve stepped up. We are now being asked to be the primary location for COVID-19 vaccine administration, and we are excited to be able to help bring this pandemic to end through vaccination. Pharmacists are trained and experienced to accept this important public health responsibility.
However, here is the bad news: Congress has repeatedly ignored pharmacists’ very simple and uncomplicated request to pass a law that lists pharmacists as health care providers under the Social Security Act. The excuse is that it’s too expensive. The Congressional Budget Office, however, only calculates the new costs of a law, and doesn’t incorporate the savings which may result from the law.
There is solid evidence in dozens of studies over a decade demonstrating that having a pharmacist engaged fully as part of the health care team improves quality, improves access to care, enhances medication management and substantially reduces health care costs. Adding the pharmacist to the team also improves consumer satisfaction with care, and the burden of care pharmacists are able to provide reduces stress on other members of the team who are struggling in our current environment.
As a result of government inaction, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services denies coverage of services provided to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries by pharmacists. Consumers are left shaking their heads wondering why they can’t go to their trusted, local pharmacist to get the care they need. And the government is failing to act on this because of turf battles: The American Medical Association continues to oppose moves to expand pharmacists’ purview, citing concerns of patient safety and qualifications of pharmacists.
This is making a foolish and futile argument. Pharmacists work hand-in-hand with physicians and patients to make medicines work and ensure appropriate outcomes. Pharmacists are not going to take anything away from physicians – we are their partners. The disingenuous turf battle has to stop and politics must be set aside; patients are being left without critical life-saving care while lobbyists play politics.
For every day Congress does not act in passing a law to grant pharmacists provider status under the Social Security Act, our nation’s seniors, including vulnerable people of color and people in rural communities, are being further denied critical access to care. Members of Congress, by their failure to take action, are complicit in the closure of more than a thousand pharmacies in rural communities over the past decade, with many more on the brink of closing. The message is clear: stand up to the special interests and act quickly to ensure all Americans have access to their pharmacist – especially in the midst of this pandemic.
Michael D. Hogue is the president of the American Pharmacists Association and the dean of the Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy.
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