The ravaging effects of the novel coronavirus have presented state lawmakers and governors with colossal public health policy challenges. In their attempt to ensure adequate care for all who are suffering from this life-threatening disease, policymakers have eased a variety of burdensome regulations and obstacles to fortify their state’s army of health care providers. While much of the focus has been on finding ways to add more doctors and nurses to the workforce, one professional often overlooked as a vital member of the health care team is the pharmacist. Pharmacists will play a pivotal role in immunizing their communities when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. This is an ideal time for state lawmakers to review and revise pharmacy practice statutes in preparation for a vaccine that many will flock to receive.
Pharmacists are vital members of America’s health care team. They provide consumers with cost-saving choices especially in underserved and rural communities. Besides counseling patients regarding medications, they are also able to administer select vaccines in all 50 states. Additionally, in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration recently issued federal guidance allowing pharmacists to provide COVID-19 testing.
Pharmacists are trusted members of their communities. In the 2018 Gallup report “Americans’ Rating on the Honesty and Ethical Standards of Professions,” pharmacists ranked as the third most honest and ethical profession (66 percent) behind nurses (84 percent) and doctors (67 percent). Over 90 percent of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, increasing access to vaccine administration for those living in rural areas. Pharmacies often have extended hours of operation, including holidays, and patients often receive vaccines at a lower cost compared to those received in a medical clinic. Not surprisingly, as more and more states have moved to allow pharmacists to administer influenza vaccines, greater numbers of individuals have been immunized. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018 pharmacists administered 42 percent of all flu vaccines — saving lives and significantly decreasing the threat of an epidemic.
So why should lawmakers review state pharmacy practice statutes if all 50 states already allow for pharmacists to administer vaccines? The answer is simple. Currently there is a patchwork of state pharmacy practice laws. Each state has different guidelines for pharmacists and even within each state, the types of vaccines offered in one pharmacy may be different than those offered at another pharmacy. Most states require written protocols between the pharmacist and a partnering physician. Each physician may agree to different vaccines resulting in protocols that vary widely from one pharmacy to another. This puts patients — consumers — in the position of having to weave their way through a maze of options just to find a location that will offer the vaccine they are seeking.
What can state lawmakers do to remove these barriers and create an easy runway for the entrance of a COVID-19 vaccine? Eight states have enacted laws that allow pharmacists to administer Federal Drug Administration approved vaccines without a physician protocol, provided they are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the vaccine’s administration. Besides my home state of Wisconsin, the states of California, Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Maryland have also enacted a similar policy. This is a great step forward and will go a long way toward ensuring uniform access to a COVID-19 vaccine across an individual state.
Even more can be done to hasten vaccine administration especially in the case of a vaccine developed to treat an illness of pandemic proportions. State lawmakers could enact laws that bypass the CDC guideline process and expand state pharmacist immunization authority to include any vaccine immediately after it receives FDA approval. The lag time between FDA approval and CDC guidance can take many months to more than a year. Historically, CDC recommendations for vaccine use have been consistent with FDA prescribing guidelines. Eliminating one lengthy step in the process will mean large numbers of individuals can be vaccinated quickly, thus preventing the rapid spread we are currently witnessing with the coronavirus.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced a reality on our lives — one we won’t soon forget. It is only a matter of time before the innovative efforts of pharmaceutical research will lead to a vaccine to prevent this deadly virus. While we patiently await that day, state policymakers should act now by drafting laws to remove barriers to vaccine access. Maximizing the role of the pharmacist and increasing pharmacists’ capacity to administer life-saving vaccines is good public policy.
Leah Vukmir is the vice president for state affairs with the National Taxpayers Union and previously served as the assistant majority leader in the Wisconsin state senate.
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