By Steve Moore | April 9, 2020

Like doctors and nurses, pharmacists are on the front lines of our healthcare system, helping lead the nation’s response to COVID-19.

Working under tremendous pressure even before this pandemic arrived, pharmacists not only continue to provide core services, but are being inundated around-the-clock with phone calls from concerned New Yorkers about the virus itself, how it spreads, what precautions to take, where and how to get a COVID-19 test, and if their prescriptions for medical issues from diabetes to high blood pressure are still available.

Dedicated to their patients, independent community pharmacies in particular – which tend to serve our most vulnerable neighbors – are making special accommodations to deal with this crisis. For example, Mount Carmel Pharmacy in the Bronx and many others are offering curbside prescription pickup at the pharmacy locations so patients don’t have to enter the store to receive their medications.

Pharmacies like Drug Mart on Manhattan’s Upper East Side are offering dedicated hours for seniors and pill packaging (individually packaging each day’s medications) for patients whose caretakers can’t be in contact with them.

Parkway Drugs in Utica is one of countless independent pharmacies across the state offering free home delivery of prescriptions, with many expanding delivery hours and hiring additional delivery staff.

Independent pharmacies are also donating urgently needed personal protective equipment to first responders and hospitals. In fact, one pharmacy donated 50,000 gloves to its local hospital, while another is donating hand sanitizer and masks to police, firefighters, and EMTs.

And yet pharmacists want to do even more. The Pharmacists Society of the State of New York recently released a Six-Point Plan for Empowering Pharmacists in Response to COVID-19. These measures would leverage New York’s highly trained and experienced pharmacists to help ease the burden on other parts of our healthcare system.

Unfortunately, though, independent pharmacists are contending with more than just a deadly pandemic. Even as they put their lives and businesses on the line to keep their communities healthy, they are under attack from greedy prescription drug middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs).

PBMs, which control virtually every aspect of the prescription drug distribution system, keep drug prices high, erode patient choice, rip off taxpayers and destroy neighborhood pharmacies.

Independent pharmacies are especially vulnerable to PBMs, which both control pharmacies’ access to patients and determine what pharmacies are reimbursed for dispensing medication. A 2019 analysis of Medicaid managed care claims found that reimbursements were so low, independent pharmacies were losing money on half of the prescriptions they fill and breaking even on just one percent.

Pharmacists deserve better. New York deserves better.

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. Last week, New York became just the fourth state in the country to eliminate PBMs from Medicaid, moving back to the fee-for-service model we previously had in place. This is good news for all New Yorkers, and we applaud Senators Rivera, Breslin and Skoufis; Assemblymen Gottfried and Cahill; the Department of Health; and the MRT II for their leadership that made this happen.

Cutting PBMs out of Medicaid will save taxpayers money, help bring down the cost of prescription drugs and provide needed relief to independent pharmacies. That’s why PSSNY has fought to make it happen since we launched the FixRx campaign in November 2018 to rein in prescription drug middlemen.

Now we must implement this change quickly to ensure our independent pharmacies can continue to be there for us at a time when New York needs them most. And we must keep advocating for common sense regulations that protect all New Yorkers from predatory PBMs.

It’s been inspiring to see how New Yorkers have come together in this difficult moment in our history. We will get through this. And your independent neighborhood pharmacists will be there for you just as they always have been.

Steve Moore is president of the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York and leads FixRx, a campaign to fix New York’s prescription drug distribution system by reining in PBMs.