Pharmacists to Expand Patient Access to Health Care in Washington State

By John Norton

The pharmacy industry’s quest to expand patient access to health care services received a boost on May 12. It happened in Washington. It wasn’t our nation’s capital where there are companion bills gaining steam to address this issue in the U.S. Senate and House (S. 314 and H.R. 592the Pharmacy and Medically Underserved Areas Enhancement Act). Instead it occurred in Olympia, Washington where the state’s Governor Jay Inslee (D) signed ESSB 5557 into law.

Washington StateThe Washington State Pharmacy Association (WSPA) played a pivotal role in getting this groundbreaking policy enacted. The bill requires any health insurance carrier to include pharmacists as network providers if the carrier does business in the state. Previously pharmacists had a more limited designation as dispensers of medications. Now pharmacists, under the scope of their practice as clinically-trained medication experts with a myriad of skills, will be able to expand patient access to basic health care services and be appropriately compensated for their efforts.

While this is clearly a victory for pharmacists, it is actually current and prospective patients who will benefit the most. One of the best ways to improve patient outcomes is by ensuring patients have access to the expertise all health care providers can offer, and pharmacists, already known for their accessibility, are uniquely qualified to broaden the services patients can receive under their care.

As the National Community Pharmacists Association’s pharmacists-as-provider fact sheet explains, a more effective utilization of pharmacists could help a health care system already straining under patient demand:

“Millions of Americans already lack adequate access to health care due to primary care physician shortages in their communities…According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, an additional 36 million individuals may potentially gain health coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), exacerbating the current shortage of physicians.”

Therefore, the concept of declaring pharmacists-as-providers, makes sense from a demand and skill standpoint, as the fact sheet underscores:

“Pharmacists are capable of playing a greater role in the delivery of health care services. Pharmacists who practice at the fullest extent of their education, training, and license can provide services that include health and wellness screenings, chronic disease management, immunization administration, medication management, and working in and partnering with hospitals and health systems to advance health and wellness and reduce hospital readmissions.”

The WSPA issued a press release thanking their allies and the law’s original sponsor State Senator Linda Evans Parlette (R-12th District), a registered pharmacist and champion of other pharmacy-friendly legislative efforts in the state. “Removing these barriers will allow pharmacists to directly care for patients in all practice settings,” said Jeff Rochon, WSPA CEO. “This common sense solution encourages greater collaboration among health providers and brings health care to patients in our communities.

Rochon added, “We are excited that pharmacists will have opportunities to increase collaboration within the health care team in patient-centered medical homes and Accountable Care Organizations, with the focus being on quality and safety. This is a huge development within our health care system, and we’re excited that pharmacists will finally be able to utilize all our skills to help patients.”

Hopefully, other states can emulate Washington’s robust approach while we wait for the federal government should do something similar. Ultimately, the under-utilization of pharmacists must end if we are going to truly improve patient outcomes.

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