Since when did poor patients gain improved access to healthcare through the demise of an important drug discount program? That’s exactly the tortured argument Stephanie Silverman makes in her recent commentary in the Congress blog, “Reforms needed so needy patients can access therapies.”

Let’s be clear: Silverman works for the drug industry, the same guys responsible for introducing 15 medicines in the last five years that cost more than $10,000 a month. Not surprisingly, the bio and pharmaceutical industries are trying to dismantle the vital but little known 340B drug discount program.  

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The program, which was created by Congress and President George H.W. Bush over twenty years ago, helps safety-net hospitals that treat large numbers of Medicaid and low-income Medicare and disabled patients buy medicines at a discount from pharmaceutical companies. Hospitals pass these discounts along to needy outpatients and also use savings from the program to fund HIV/AIDS, diabetes, primary care and specialty clinics for the underserved.   It has proven so successful it has been expanded to children’s and rural hospitals with strong bipartisan support.

Big Pharma says it wishes to “reform” 340B. In truth, it wants to effectively kill the program by narrowing its scope and reach. That would leave tens of millions of poor Americans with less access to affordable medications and the vital healthcare services needed to keep them healthy.

To support her argument, the author cites a flawed industry-funded report that charges 340B hospitals are buying up private oncology practices just to make money. Hospitals across America are rapidly integrating with all kinds of specialty practices due to tectonic shifts in the delivery of healthcare. Hospitals are strengthening ties to each other and physicians an effort to improve quality and efficiency. There are no data in this report or elsewhere to show that 340B hospitals are engaging in this effort more than other providers.

The author also points to another study on the U.S. cancer market and charges that hospitals’ participation in the 340B program somehow increases the cost of care for oncology patients. Again, there is no data in the report to support this specious accusation. Unlike private oncologists, cancer doctors affiliated with safety-net hospitals must provide service to all patients – regardless of their ability to pay. They also provide a much broader range of services, from surgery to chemo to radiation therapy to family counseling. Private oncologists have the luxury of shunting their poorest patients to the nearest hospital for treatment. Then they point the finger at hospitals for costing more.

The 340B program is working exactly as Congress intended. It allows health providers to stretch federal resources and better serve their poorest patients. Eliminating or scaling back 340B would only serve to pad highly profitable drug company pockets while leaving our neediest patients with fewer healthcare options.

Slafsky is president and chief executive officer of Safety Net Hospitals for Pharmaceutical Access, an association of more than 1,000 hospitals participating in the 340B drug discount program