Even with the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare of many Americans must take a backseat to other daily expenses due to the struggle to pay for the soaring cost of prescription drugs.  

Unfortunately, while prescription drugs costs are rising faster than ever, a critical federal program that helps to discount drugs for those receiving care through qualifying hospitals is at risk. The Public Health Service 340B drug pricing program helped provide about $3.8 billion in drug discounts in 2013 – around 2 percent of the $325 billion in total U.S. spending on prescription drugs.  

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According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 76 percent of Americans say a top priority for the president and Congress should be to make sure that those who need high-cost drugs for chronic conditions can afford them. Yet there are discussions in Congress of scaling back or significantly reducing the benefits of the 340B program, which would threaten access for those needing affordable prescription drugs.   

Not only are brand name drug prices increasing, but some of the most common and widely prescribed generic drugs are becoming more expensive – and for no apparent reason. For example, since last year, a commonly prescribed generic medication called vasopressin that is used to increase a person’s blood pressure went up by more than 800 percent, from $89 to $875. 

Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, the 340B program has long had bipartisan support. Just last week, former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele praised the fiscal and moral responsibility of the program. Steele added that the revenue neutral program doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, while it expands access for low-income and minority patients in rural and urban areas alike.  

At Ascension, our mission is to provide the highest quality care to all, with special attention to those who are struggling and need care the most. As chief executive officer of Saint Thomas Health, an Ascension health system in Tennessee, I can tell you about the benefits of the 340B program. Saint Thomas Hickman Hospital is a critical access hospital located in Centerville, Tenn. We serve a vulnerable community with a median household income of $24,824 and care for roughly 10,000 people a year at this hospital. Nearly 20 percent of our patients do not have health insurance.  

In 2015, Saint Thomas Hickman Hospital will benefit from 340B prescription drug discounts worth about $387,000. Although the hospital relies on 340B to assist with the cost of medications, we know that our patients face several obstacles to receiving necessary treatment and the savings we receive from 340B help us provide vital extra services. Outreach is critical in a high-poverty area such as Hickman County, where many people lack transportation, so we make house calls. We also pick up patients and bring them to the hospital for their appointments. 

Small hospitals like Saint Thomas Hickman provide a vital presence in their communities. Last September, a local resident drove himself to our emergency room in the midst of having a heart attack. We immediately administered a clot-busting drug and airlifted the patient to Nashville for emergency surgery. The patient’s surgeon noted that he would have likely died if Saint Thomas Hickman had not been nearby. 

This week, Ascension hospital and health system leaders from across the country are on Capitol Hill to stress the importance of this program on behalf of their patients who are struggling to afford their prescription medications. The 340B program is essential to helping safety-net providers stretch limited resources to serve their communities. By paying less for high-priced prescription drugs, safety-net providers have more resources to help their patients. If the 340B program is scaled back, some hospitals’ doors may not be open next time a local resident needs immediate life-saving treatment.  

Yet the program has been facing mounting criticism. Drug companies are holding a microscope to the program demanding that the program be scaled back. Ascension strongly supports good stewardship of the 340B program through transparency of drug discounts savings, accountability on how those savings are used and assurances that low-income patients receive medically necessary health services and medications at no charge or at a nominal cost.  

Ascension calls on lawmakers to avoid making changes to the 340B program that would hurt our ability to ensure our patients have access to affordable medications. We ask for preservation of the program so we can make sure all individuals can access the medications they need at an affordable cost.

Schatzlein, MD is chief executive officer of Saint Thomas Health in Nashville, Tennessee and market leader for the Indiana and Tennessee Ministries of Ascension Health.