Pharmacists dispense lobby blitz

A  Massachusetts pharmacists reaches for a prescription.

Community pharmacists from across the nation have begun an over-the-counter lobbying campaign to help set the stage for the coming debate on comprehensive health care reform.

Community pharmacists from across the nation have begun an over-the-counter lobbying campaign to help set the stage for the coming debate on comprehensive health care reform.

More than 1,000 community pharmacists have signed up 5,000 customers since the National Community Pharmacists Association launched its $250,000 grass-roots lobbying and media campaign earlier this month.

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With 23,000 member pharmacies nationwide, the group is on track to assemble a 100,000-member patient coalition by the end of the year, said spokeswoman Lisa Camooso Miller. So far, the members of the Fight4Rx campaign have been enrolled by their pharmacists behind the counter or through fliers stuffed into their prescription bags.  

The campaign is being run on a shoestring budget, compared to the many more-moneyed health care industry interests. But Camooso Miller said it will be able to engage patients in key congressional districts and states.

Community pharmacists are known and trusted by their customers, who look to them for health care advice, Camooso Miller said. And because Fight4Rx members opt in to the campaign, they are more likely to contact their lawmakers when asked, she said.

“You can bet that the community pharmacist and their patrons are aware of their members of Congress and the voice they have in the debate,” she said.

“In key districts, we will make sure we have a critical mass of patients so that these members of Congress know how the folks who care about health care in their districts feel about the health care debate in Washington.”

To help grow its membership, the campaign plans TV ads featuring a local pharmacy in each media market, ads on consumer health information websites and an online presence, Fight4Rx.org, which includes a search tool to help people find an independent pharmacy using their ZIP code.

The campaign will work to prevent cuts to the reimbursement rates pharmacists are paid to fill prescriptions for Medicare and Medicaid patients and to push Congress to allow the small pharmacies to pool together to negotiate drug prices directly with the federal government, much like their big chain-store competitors do.

They’re also lobbying against mandates that would force patients enrolled in government health programs to use mail-­order pharmacies.

“We know that most people, if given the chance, will come to the pharmacy,” said Gino Cordisco, a pharmacist at Med-Fast Pharmacy in Pennsylvania. “You always have to give the people a choice.”

People come to his pharmacies because they can have one-on-one conversations with their pharmacists, he said. And community pharmacists are among the most accessible health care providers available; policies that limit their use hurt health care quality, he added.

So far, his 18 stores sprinkled through about a half-dozen congressional districts in western Pennsylvania have signed up several hundred people for the campaign, said Cordisco, who is the store operations director.

“The majority of customers really want the community pharmacies to survive because they rely on them,” he said. “We’re not looking for bailouts or handouts. We’re looking for a level playing field and the opportunity to continue taking care of our customers one on one.”

Pharmacist Michael Kim is well-­positioned to take the message directly to lawmakers. As the owner of Grubb’s Care Pharmacy, four blocks from the Capitol, he’s Congress’ community pharmacist, filling prescriptions for at least 100 members.

With about a dozen members coming through his doors each week, Kim regularly talks issues with them and always tries to personalize the form e-mail letters generated by the community pharmacists’ association, he said. Now he’s going to try to sign up lawmakers for the campaign.

He was recently talking pharmacy with freshman Rep. Parker Griffith (D-Ala.), who sought out a community pharmacy instead of a chain store upon arriving in Washington. His dad, Kim said, owned an independent pharmacy.

“We have at least that vote,” Kim said.