Imagine a basketball team that refused to play a member of its starting line-up.  What’s more, the coach decides that no one else from the bench will play that position; instead all of the work on the court would fall to the other four players.  It seems safe to assume that the team would not have a winning record, their fans would be rightfully appalled, and the franchise would lose a significant amount of money.  There would be immediate demands for the coach to put the entire starting line-up in the game. 

Right now, Congress is the coach of every American patient’s health care team, and they aren’t playing the full starting line-up.  Patients expect their healthcare team includes every provider. Unfortunately, pharmacists aren’t receiving adequate play time and patients are unable to reap the benefits of a full healthcare team working for the highest healthcare outcomes.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that pharmacists are not federally recognized as healthcare providers. In fact, according to recent research, 81 percent of the public already considers pharmacists a part of a patient’s overall health care team.  But while physicians, nurses, therapists, chiropractors, dieticians, and midwives are all recognized as health care providers under the federal law that governs Medicare, pharmacists are not.

This is especially ironic considering the frequency with which people interact with their pharmacists as part of their ongoing health care needs.  In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found about half of Americans reported taking at least one prescription drug in the last month.  In fact, pharmacists have more regular contact with patients than almost any other member of the medical community.

Pharmacists play a critical role on the health care team and in the lives of patients from every economic background in every type of community across the country. They are providing a broad spectrum of services, including conducting health and wellness screenings, helping patients understand and manage chronic diseases, providing medication management, administering immunizations, and partnering with health systems to reduce hospital readmissions.

Being recognized as a healthcare provider isn’t an ego issue – this omission has significant implications for the health and well-being of patients. Millions of Americans lack adequate access to primary health care. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that by 2020, the shortage will amount to more than 90,000 doctors, including 45,000 patient care physicians. As the projected shortage of primary care providers gets worse, so too will the healthcare access challenges that patients in underserved communities face. Addressing this omission by giving physicians, nurses and patients access to pharmacists’ quality patient care services can help address provider shortages and access issues in these communities.

A new bipartisan legislative proposal to recognize the value pharmacists can provide to patients has been introduced and is now pending before Congress. The bill would recognize pharmacists under Medicare, the same as every other health care professional. If passed, it would help address the needs of some of our Nation’s most vulnerable patients – those in medically underserved communities – and provide the additional benefit of adding efficiencies to the health care system through the better integration of the pharmacist into the patient’s health care team.  It’s a win-win for patients, other health care providers, underserved communities and pharmacists.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen how contentious health care can be as an issue. But this is an issue with broad consensus to right a wrong that has lingered for far too long. Simply put, pharmacists are capable providers in an incapable system. When pharmacists and their services are recognized under the law, patients will have access to an array of care services beyond dispensing of medications.  It’s up to lawmakers to ensure that not only are pharmacists rightfully recognized for their invaluable contributions to a patient’s health care team, but that patients can have access to the critical care they need. America’s 300,000 pharmacists have one message for Congress: Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.

Menighan is CEO of the American Pharmacists Association.