HHS needs to act now — recent natural disasters call for prescription assistance

HHS needs to act now — recent natural disasters call for prescription assistance
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Hurricanes plagued Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico from late August through October and over the past week, 32 people have died and an estimated 25,000 people were forced to evacuate as wildfires ripped through Northern California.

With this onslaught of natural disasters wreaking havoc across the U.S. and its territories, thousands of people in the past two months have found themselves displaced, without power, shelter or necessities due to powerful hurricanes and devastating forest fires.

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As an advocate for people living with acute, terminal or chronic conditions, my first thoughts always go to whether victims of these disasters will have access to their medically necessary treatments and equipment.

 

The Emergency Prescription Assistance Program (EPAP) was created specifically for these times of crisis. The program provides a mechanism for more than 70,000 enrolled retail pharmacies nationwide to process claims for certain kinds of prescription drugs, specific medical supplies, vaccines and some forms of medical equipment for uninsured individuals in a federally-identified disaster area. The program provides a 30-day supply of covered drugs and medical supplies that can be renewed every 30 days for as long as EPAP remains active. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not consistently enacted EPAP to assist survivors of recent crises with crucial prescription access. In fact, the response of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the face of recent events has been abysmal.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans rely on at least one prescription drug, and more than half take two. Many of these individuals are managing chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, diabetes, autoimmune, immune-related or mental health conditions.

Residents whose homes have been affected by these natural disasters may lack access to treatments, putting them at risk of relapsing. In many cases, these individuals are facing life-threatening conditions and cannot afford a disturbance in their regular course of treatment.  

Yet, as hurricanes Harvey and Irma ravaged Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, forcing thousands to flee their homes, HHS' website revealed the glaring omission: “There are no affected areas at this time.” 

Realizing the potential of EPAP in assisting the displaced, the National Infusion Center Association joined with over 25 other patient advocacy organizations in the immediate aftermath of Harvey and Irma to implore HHS to activate the program, with no response.

And, while HHS has finally activated EPAP in Puerto Rico, it was three weeks after the catastrophic destruction of Hurricane Maria. Meanwhile, local pharmacies had no assurances from the federal government that reimbursement support was available, and thousands likely went without access to needed prescriptions.

We can do better this time. While HHS’ action in Puerto Rico was delayed and they have now missed the chance to help victims of Harvey and Irma in Houston and Florida, opportunity is not lost to help those affected by the wildfires in California who urgently need it.

We already know that a timely response in the wake of a disaster saves lives. The longer it takes to activate EPAP, the fewer people are likely to take advantage of the program, or to even know that they can. Instead, they will either seek care from overloaded emergency rooms or simply go without necessary prescriptions, making them at risk of relapsing or even death due to their displacement.

HHS must fulfill its duty and activate EPAP in Northern California. Furthermore, activation of EPAP should be swift and automatic in the future, whenever it is needed to ensure patients have prescription access to maintain continuity of care.

It is past time that HHS use every resource at its disposal to assist victims of national disasters. I urge HHS to activate EPAP in California and remain vigilant in the face of future natural disasters.

Brian Nyquist is the executive director of the National Infusion Center Association.