Pharmacy: Health policy’s shot-in-the-arm?

At least two significant challenges stymie health policymakers today – the search for effective and affordable access solutions, as well as for productive legislative collaboration.  As lawmakers in Washington continue to work toward finding healthcare solutions for families across the United States, the emerging story of pharmacies as the face of neighborhood healthcare may contain clues for advancing the health of Americans, and of the nation’s governing bodies as well.

Take vaccinations as an example.  The flu pandemic of 2009 inspired states to temporarily expand pharmacists’ vaccination authority to allow them to administer the flu vaccine.  It did not take long for public health authorities to realize the access power of pharmacies, which are located within just five miles of nine-in-ten Americans.

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The success of the effort led to more opportunities for pharmacists to put their doctorate degrees to work for the American people, on a more permanent and substantial basis.  Today, each state allows pharmacists to administer at least three different vaccines, which greatly improves access to care for families across the country.

In fact, pharmacies’ access power may be even more influential than once thought – it may be a super-power that can even unite political rivals.  Consider the Pharmacy and Medically Underserved Areas Enhancement Act (H.R. 592 and S. 109), legislation that would give underserved Medicare patients access to services that pharmacists are authorized to provide under state laws, but that are not made available through the Medicare program specifically.

Examples of these services include administering additional immunizations; helping seniors manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart conditions and asthma; conducting wellness or prevention testing; and educating seniors on medications to drive greater adherence to prescribed treatments. Medicare currently covers these services when provided by physicians, nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants – but not when provided by pharmacists.  The Pharmacy and Medically Underserved Areas Enhancement Act would address this issue, thereby expanding access to care for patients who need it most.

In the 114th Congress, this legislation achieved the bipartisan co-sponsorship of more than half of the U.S. Senate and more than two-thirds of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Further, this measure is highly popular among voters – particularly among those who have first-hand experience of pharmacy services.  A recent public opinion survey showed that the legislation was supported by 88 percent of respondents who had received a flu shot in a pharmacy over the past year – even higher than the bill’s 80 percent support level among those who had not. 

Even as Congress seeks opportunities to improve healthcare access and affordability through pharmacy patient care, it also would be wise to ensure it does not take actions that would threaten access. For example, as Congress continues to explore various aspects of healthcare reform, it is important to preserve pharmacy benefits and pharmacy services in Medicaid and in Medicare. Pharmacies in neighborhoods nationwide serve as convenient and critical access points for patient care, generating savings for payers.

In healthcare delivery, as in healthcare policymaking, there is no panacea.  However, lessons learned over the past decade – including those related to pharmacists’ enhanced vaccination authority – suggest that seeking improved access for patients through highly educated, trusted and accessible professionals like pharmacists can yield bipartisan accomplishments amid times of need.

In this way, similar and additional initiatives – fueled by collaboration among various segments of healthcare delivery and by leaders in government – could notch progress toward remedies for patients, as well as for the policymaking and political arenas alike.

Steven C. Anderson is President and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.