Congress should protect access to health care at pharmacies

The Equitable Community Access to Pharmacist Services Act would ensure that patients maintain access to pandemic-related care provided by pharmacists by reimbursing them through Medicare.

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In this file photo taken on February 05, 2021, a healthcare worker prepares a dose of the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

A health care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Pharmacies have been a major source of health care for many during the pandemic.

Mark Felix/Getty

In Nigeria, where I grew up, my grandmother struggled to receive the care she needed for cancer. Despite many long trips to the doctor, her symptoms didn’t subside. I often think of her when I’m vaccinating patients for COVID-19 and other serious conditions in the South Side Chicago pharmacy where I work today.

Many patients here and elsewhere have no options for health care beyond the pharmacy. But unless Congress passes pending bipartisan legislation, these patients could lose access to critical services that pharmacists provide.

Like many immigrants, I was enthralled by Chicago when I first arrived in 2011. I was especially captivated by the number of pharmacies! It was hard for me to believe that residents could simply walk a few blocks to receive care and services from qualified health care professionals, often without no appointment.

It was then that I decided to become a pharmacist to help patients, particularly the most vulnerable and those with inadequate access to care.

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Many South Side Chicagoans who lack such needed access are African Americans and Latinos. Although these groups represent nearly 60% of all Chicagoans, they have less access to care and a lower life expectancy than other populations.

When I started my pharmacy career, I quickly learned that South Side clinics are scattered, family doctors are few, care at emergency rooms is costly and waiting times are often long. I realized I had to work with my local community to improve health equity and to ensure that all patients have a chance to remain healthy. I knew it would be difficult, but I never expected these barriers to access would become as dire as they have during COVID-19.

While the pandemic overburdened many emergency care providers in Chicago, pharmacies remained open and expanded their health services. Patients relied on pharmacists to access COVID-19 tests, vaccinations and treatment, and to manage related health conditions that put them at greater risk for COVID-19 complications.

Nine in 10 Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, making pharmacists the most accessible health care professionals in the nation. Pharmacists have been essential in fully vaccinating 74% of Chicagoans for COVID-19, including thousands who have visited my Walgreens pharmacy on the South Side or whom we have met in local schools, public spaces and places of worship.

Pharmacists in Chicago and across Illinois have demonstrated a dedication to protect our neighbors through one of the most challenging public health crises of our time. But we’re doing so under a fragile infrastructure.

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For over two years, pharmacists have been providing these essential services — including COVID-19 testing and vaccinations — under temporary state and federal authorities established in response to the pandemic. When these temporary authorities lapse, patients in Chicago and elsewhere could lose access to essential care and services provided by pharmacists. This would include many seniors and other vulnerable patients who look to the pharmacy as their primary source of care.

Recognizing this gap, Republicans and Democrats in Congress introduced H.R. 7213, the Equitable Community Access to Pharmacist Services Act. It would ensure that patients maintain access to essential pandemic-related care — such as COVID-19 testing or a drug regimen — provided by pharmacists, by reimbursing pharmacists through Medicare Part B for emergency-related services they provide in accordance with state scope of practice laws.

I urge the entire Illinois congressional delegation to support this legislation. Without it, patients in Chicago and elsewhere may struggle to protect their health during COVID-19 and in the future. In passing H.R. 7213, Congress can demonstrate leadership to provide equitable care for patients, combat COVID-19, and prepare for the public health threats of tomorrow.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Olayinka “Stephen” Fadowole, PharmD, is a pharmacist who manages a Walgreens pharmacy in Chicago.

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