NCPA annual event a call to action for independent pharmacy owners

ANAHEIM, Calif. ”Get into politics or get out of pharmacy.”

That starkly worded mandate has served as the motto of the National Community Pharmacists Association’s political action committee over the past year. But voiced by NCPA president John Tilley at the opening of NCPA’s 109th Annual Convention & Trade Expo here Sunday, it also sums up the urgent tenor of this year’s gathering of independent pharmacists.

Over the past two days, Tilley and other NCPA officers have issued an urgent call to action to the more than 3,000 pharmacy owners, wholesaler and drug manufacturer representatives and technology vendors gathered at the Anaheim Convention Center for the annual event. Tilley and NCPA executive vice president and chief executive officer Bruce Roberts called on independent owner-operators to forge closer ties with their congressional representatives at the grass-roots level and demonstrate clearly the kinds of personalized, face-to-face patient-care activities that will win community pharmacy a more secure role within the health care system.

On a larger front, they also urged NCPA members to support—through their own involvement and through the dollars they provide to the organization’s political action committee—the industry-wide effort to turn aside federal regulatory and reimbursement challenges that threaten the livelihood of independents and the access of patients to community pharmacies.

“From the advent of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which brought us Medicare Part D and its challenges, to the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which has now brought us [the new Medicaid reimbursement formula] AMP and its challenges, independent community pharmacies have faced and will continue to face some hard times unless we take action,” said Tilley. “That’s why I made working on the legislative front a top priority during my year as your president.”

That commitment is sure to continue under president-elect Stephen Giroux, who presided over an awards ceremony Monday to honor outstanding independent community pharmacists.

Tilley and Roberts outlined the challenges now nipping at independent pharmacy owners, while exhorting them to maintain support for pharmacy-friendly lawmakers in Congress now working to turn aside some of those threats. “Realistically, this has been one of the toughest years in recent history,” Roberts acknowledged at the Monday morning business session. “I don’t think the word ‘challenge’ even begins to describe it. Medicare Part D took its toll. And Medicaid’s AMP [average manufacturer’s price] reimbursement formula looms before us. However, I believe that even in the midst of these difficult times there lies hope.

“Our vision has been and remains this: a future where the pharmacist is an integral part of the health care delivery team—a partner with the plan, the physician and the patient in assuring optimal outcomes.”

Among the gravest concerns voiced by NCPA’s leaders: the “low and slow” reimbursement practices of the prescription drug plans administering the Medicare Part D benefit program, which NCPA asserts was a major factor in the closing of more than 1,100 independents last year.

“As pharmacy owners, we typically have to pay our wholesalers every 14 days,” Tilley noted. “I’m pretty sure I speak for every pharmacy owner here when I say I have no desire to serve as a lender to the obscenely profitable giant PBMs. And that is exactly what they have been forcing community pharmacies to do. The advent of Medicare Part D has only worsened an already unfair situation.”

With more than 200 bipartisan cosponsors in Congress supporting passage of the Fair and Speedy Treatment of Medicare Prescription Drug Claims Act of 2007, Tilley went on, legislative relief may be in sight. “The time is now for passage of this prompt-pay bill,” he asserted.

NCPA’s leaders also described growing support in Congress for other legislative relief packages critical to pharmacy owners, including a change in the Medicaid reimbursement policy for generic drugs set to take effect early next year. As one example, Roberts cited the creation of the new Congressional Community Pharmacy Caucus, composed of pharmacy-friendly legislators working to maintain the viability of the profession.

“The formation of the…Caucus is clear evidence that Congress is listening,” he told NCPA members. “The Caucus was launched late last month with 34 bipartisan founding members, and now has nearly 50 members.”

Apart from the urgent business on the political and regulatory side, attendees at the annual event are also being served a rich diet of education sessions and discussion groups to explore opportunities in areas like medication therapy management, immunizations and compounding. They’ve also heard from Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis, a trustee of the Women’s Sports Foundation and founder of See Jane, which seeks to reduce gender stereotyping in media for children; and former major league pitcher Jim Abbott, who despite being born without a right hand went on to pitch a no-hitter for the New York Yankees and to win a Gold Medal with the U.S. baseball team in the 1988 Olympics.