Garza: Discounted Drug Pricing Program for Poor Still Needed



AUSTIN, Texas – (Aug. 18, 2014) – Today’s Austin American-Statesman features commentary by Seton Healthcare Family President and Chief Executive OfficerJesús Garza. At issue is an effort by several major pharmaceutical companies to eliminate a federal program that requires them to provide Seton and other qualified health care systems with prescription drugs at significantly reduced prices so that the medications then can be provided to patients of limited financial means.
Garza: Drug pricing program is still needed

By Jesús GarzaSpecial to the American-Statesman

Every day, many Americans must weigh how they spend each dollar.

Food or rent? Electric bill or heart medication? Gasoline or asthma inhaler? For those who are uninsured and underinsured, prescription drugs are often sacrificed to cover the basic costs of day-to-day life.

The consequences of skipping a prescription? More expensive emergency room visits, declining health and a poorer quality of life.

Seton Healthcare Family believes it shares responsibility for ensuring that the 2 million people in our 11-county metro region have access to the medications they need. Our mission has always been to provide great health care for all with a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, with respect and dignity. Last year, Seton provided $349 million in charity care for people living at or near poverty.

Seton also administers federal programs that assist the poor. One, the 340B Drug Pricing Program established by Congress in 1992, requires drug manufacturers to sell drugs to certain health care providers at significantly reduced prices for outpatient use.

This has become vital to helping patients avoid the hospital by helping them manage their medical conditions. This is especially important for those with chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes.

Only nonprofit health care organizations that meet specific federal requirements may dispense the lower-priced drugs to eligible patients. Last year, the 340B program allowed Seton to provide $750,000 in free drugs to vulnerable patients and operate six pharmacy clinics that provide cost-effective, routine follow-up care and ongoing medication access and counseling. Among them are clinics at:

Seton Burnet Healthcare Center operates a clinic that monitors patients on medications that prevent blood clots. Patients’ participation in an anticoagulation clinic can decrease serious complications and deaths caused by mismanaged blood-thinning medications. Without funding from 340B, this clinic would most likely close.

Many Central Texans with cancer turn to Seton for their first line of treatment and, later, their far costlier second. The retail cost for a new skin cancer medication is $30,000. Reduced pricing puts these life-extending drugs within reach.

The problem that drove Congress to create the reduced pricing program has not disappeared. The cost of pharmaceuticals continues to rise at an alarming rate. The price of methotrexate, prescribed for patients with psoriasis, cancer and severe rheumatoid arthritis, rose 488 percent in the past 12 months. Prednisone, a common steroid prescribed for multiple sclerosis, lupus and arthritis, rose 460 percent.

Unfortunately, some very profitable pharmaceutical companies have begun opposing the 340B program. These drug companies recently funded a study which suggests 340B hospitals provide minimal charity care.

But that report only told half of the story. Using the same data, when the cost of unpaid bills and government funding shortfalls were added to the calculation, 340B hospitals and clinics provided consistently more charity care than did non-340B facilities.

As the number of poor and vulnerable in our region grows, increased drug prices pose a serious threat to the quality of life in our community. However, the 340B law is simple and effective. Allowing Seton and other safety net providers to pay less for high-priced outpatient prescription drugs helps us spread our resources further.

Bottom line: Seton Healthcare Family relies on 340B to provide affordable medications to our poor and vulnerable patients. Rolling back the 340B program will only add to pharmaceutical industry profits while leaving the most vulnerable citizens of Central Texas with reduced access to the medications and quality health care they desperately need – and deserve.

Garza is president and chief executive officer for Seton Healthcare Family, a member of Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system.