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David Vite: More cuts could drive much-needed pharmacists out of Medicaid

(AP Photo/Belleville News DemocrDerik Holtmann)

(AP Photo/Belleville News Democrat, Derik Holtmann)

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Men and women in their distinctive white pharmacy lab coats are often the people we turn to for advice when we’re not feeling quite right — and the State of Illinois would also be wise to seek the pharmacists’ counsel as they wrestle with migraine-sized Medicaid reform.

Here’s the problem: State officials recently announced their projected Medicaid reform savings from the Save Medicaid Access and Resources Together (SMART) Act will be $464 million less than previously expected.

Pharmacists truly recognize the challenges facing Springfield when it comes to the current budget crisis, and have worked with policymakers to find ways to reduce government outlays without compromising patient well-being. Unfortunately, the $464 million shortfall may cause a number of additional revisions that need to be carefully weighed — let’s be smart with regard to the SMART Act.

Pharmacists in our grocery and retail stores, as well as local independent pharmacists, add value to their patients’ health beyond dispensing medications. They administer vaccinations, screen patients for chronic health conditions, and provide health counseling to many who seek guidance. Pharmacists emphasize overall health and wellness which translates to people living healthier lives while saving the state money in the long run. Interestingly, in areas of the state where there are not enough physicians, pharmacists fill a critical gap in access to care.

As one of the state’s most expansive programs, Medicaid health insurance for the poor is always a place to look for additional savings. But legislators should resist the temptation to enact another round of cuts to the health professionals, including pharmacists, providing care. Even though savings fell $464 million short of projections, local pharmacists have already been hard hit by reductions in reimbursements under last year’s SMART Act. Further savings on the backs of providers could lead to the exit of many pharmacists from the program, and compromise the quality of health care for patients.

This is a critical time for health care in Illinois. In addition to the budget challenges posed by the Medicaid program as it is currently constituted, hundreds of thousands more residents are expected to join the rolls when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. We need a strong, sustainable program with a robust network of providers to meet both current and future needs.

Over the last two years, pharmacists have done impressive work identifying savings for the state while continuing to provide the quality care customers rely upon on every day. In 2011, a diverse coalition of industries and pharmacists rolled up their sleeves and worked with state officials to reduce Medicaid pharmacy costs a full six percent by increasing patients’ use of less expensive, generic drugs. Savings were achieved without sacrificing patient care.

Yes, Illinois’ budget situation is dire. Yes, reducing Medicaid costs is essential. State leaders should work collaboratively with provider groups and health advocates as they did in 2011 to secure sustainable, long-term savings. Pharmacists are one of the most trusted professions and play a key role in delivering health care services to all of us and need to be heard as savings in the Medicaid program are discussed.

David Vite serves as President/CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association which represents over 23,000 stores across Illinois. Mr. Vite also serves as a Board Member of the Pharmacy Choice and Access Now (PCAN) coalition.

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