June 20, 2017

Op-Ed: Gov. Wolf’s Budget Proposal Will Hurt Pharmacies And Seniors

By Ed Bechtel, Bechtel’s Pharmacy, Slatington

The following op-ed appeared in the June 17 Allentown Morning Call

According to projections, nearly one-quarter of Pennsylvania's population will be over the age of 65 by 2040. As the commonwealth's population ages, the role of pharmacists as health care providers becomes ever more essential.
Providing medication therapy management, synchronizing prescription refills, performing health screenings, administering vaccines, and helping to manage chronic illnesses are just some of the services we offer beyond dispensing medications.
As the owner of an independent pharmacy, I work closely with my patients to offer optimal care, including many of services mentioned above.
Gov. Wolf's current budget proposal to cut professional dispensing fees to pharmacies for providing medications to low-income seniors will place increased financial strain on my business.
This strain will make it ever more difficult to provide the vital care our elderly population requires.
In November of last year, the governor signed a law that significantly altered the reimbursement pharmacies receive when dispensing medications to older citizens who participate in Pennsylvania's PACE program — the program that covers low-income seniors who are unable to pay the out-of-pocket expenses associated with their Medicare Part D coverage.
While this change instituted a more transparent reimbursement methodology, it came as a substantial loss to pharmacies throughout the commonwealth.
In total, the Wolf administration projected this change would save Pennsylvania $23.6 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
We pharmacists supported this measure even as we bore the brunt of the projected savings as a loss to our businesses.
Now Gov. Wolf is proposing to slash the payment pharmacies receive by an additional 46 percent through cuts to the PACE professional dispensing fee — a measure that would be detrimental to patients and pharmacies throughout the Commonwealth.
The administration's current budget proposal calls for cutting $45 million from pharmacies, on top of the previously mentioned $23.6 million, and using these savings for the proposed Health and Human Services Department merger.
I ask you, why should pharmacies be forced to pay for this merger?
We in the pharmacy community have proudly advocated for the PACE program since its inception, even while incurring losses by participating in it.
This is because the program benefits those Pennsylvania citizens over 65 years of age who are below the poverty line, a group that accounts for roughly 10 percent of Allentown's senior population, according to census figures.
Keeping pharmacies engaged in care for Pennsylvania's elderly population, specifically those low-income seniors, is vital to the future of our commonwealth.
Community pharmacies provide care throughout the commonwealth, often helping to cover for a growing physician shortage.
According to a Joint State Government Commission report, by 2030 Pennsylvania will need an additional 1,000 physicians just to maintain its current level of care.
In many cases, we are the backbone of our communities and often the only viable health care provider available in rural areas. We care for patients, employ thousands, and pay taxes even as the governor proposes to pay us below cost to dispense medications.
This is not viable and stands as a direct slap in our face after years of supporting a program that helps senior citizens address their medication issues.
The current business climate for pharmacies is as difficult as I have ever seen it in my 36 years of practice, not only for small practices like mine but also for the large corporate drugstores, forcing many to close their doors (for example, K-Mart on West Tilghman Street closed its pharmacy department last month).
With the Wolf administration's proposal to cut payment to pharmacies for providing medications to low-income seniors, this difficulty will only increase.
If acted upon, this proposal will surely force pharmacies to decrease the care they provide to Pennsylvania's elderly population and could ultimately push both independent and chain pharmacies out of business.
In the end, much of the decision on whether to act upon this proposal rests with the state Senate as they deliberate on the budget the state House of Representatives passed in April.
As such, I urge Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and his colleagues in the state Legislature to oppose any actions that would cut payment to pharmacies for the medications we provide.
Ed Bechtel is president of Bechtel's Pharmacy in Slatington and also president of the the Lehigh Valley Pharmacists Association.