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To improve medical care, enlist pharmacists

Behind the pharmacy counter in our community drug stores are highly educated professionals who not only dispense medicines, but also serve in other important roles as part of a patient’s health care team. These accessible health-care professionals are ready to help solve a growing crisis in our country and in Massachusetts that is having an increasingly negative impact on people and communities most in need of basic primary care.

Right now, millions of Americans lack adequate access to health care services and are classified as medically underserved. This is the case even in Boston, which is the home of world-class — and even pioneering – health care. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 12 out of 14 counties in Massachusetts include communities that are considered “medically underserved.” That agency-designated term includes such factors as the ratio of primary medical care physicians per 1,000 population, the infant mortality rate, the percentage of the population with incomes below the poverty level, and the percentage of the population age 65 or over.

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This challenge will intensify with demand increasing on the medical system as Medicare recipients grow by an estimated 30 million over the next two decades. In addition, upwards of 25 million people may potentially acquire health-care coverage over the next few years due to the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there will be approximately 91,000 fewer doctors than needed to meet demand. All of this will take the greatest toll on the communities and people who are already medically underserved.

There is a way to bring relief to this growing crisis of limited access to affordable, quality health care. Your local pharmacist is part of the solution.

Nearly all Americans live within five miles of a community pharmacy. Pharmacists are health care professionals who serve an important role as part of a patient’s health care team by providing services such as coordination of medication; comprehensive medication reviews; chronic disease prevention and management; patient education; and sometimes, just peace of mind. Pharmacists are very often the most accessible health care professionals in underserved communities and, if included as part of a patient’s coordinated care team, they can play a larger role in the delivery of quality, affordable, and accessible community-based health care.

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Proposed bipartisan legislation in the US House of Representatives — H.R. 4190 — would increase accessibility to affordable health care services for Medicare beneficiaries who are in medically underserved communities. The law would allow pharmacists under Medicare Part B to provide medically underserved communities with services that pharmacists are currently permitted to administer according to state law.

This would not only begin to improve the health of people in medically underserved communities, it would help reduce the health care costs that burden our communities, businesses, and government by better managing chronic health issues that, if not managed closely, can lead to repeated hospital admissions or catastrophic situations.

There are currently more than 4,000 licensed pharmacists in Massachusetts working in neighborhood pharmacies across the Commonwealth. The enactment of H.R. 4190 would allow these qualified health care professionals to get to work for medically underserved communities in Massachusetts and perform for Medicare patients important services such as vaccination screening and delivery, chronic disease management, medication therapy management, and preventive screenings such as testing of glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

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A July Internet survey of likely voters who are informed and engaged when it comes to current events found that 79 percent of respondents favor the legislation — including 36 percent who strongly favor it. The survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and commissioned by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, also found tremendous bipartisan support, with 85 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans supporting it. This reflects the bill’s current co-sponsorship, with 50 Democrats and 44 Republicans cosponsoring it in the US House of Representatives.

Sometimes the solutions to our toughest challenges are right in front of us. In the case of improving access to quality, affordable health care, the solution is right down the street at our local, neighborhood pharmacy.


Steven C. Anderson is the president & CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Michael Malloy, PharmD, is the Dean of the MCPHS University School of Pharmacy – Worcester/Manchester.