Pharmacy champions in Congress: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

Hub on Provider Status

Pharmacy Today on Members of Congress who are champions of pharmacy. Grassley, along with Sens. Robert Casey (D-PA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), introduced the Pharmacy and Medically Underserved Areas Enhancement Act (S. 314) on January 29. The bipartisan legislation is a companion bill to H.R. 592, introduced on January 28.

Where does your appreciation for pharmacists and pharmacy come from? 

Several areas. A lot of Iowans live in small towns, where there might be a pharmacist in town but no doctor. Sometimes there’s no doctor for several towns. Iowans are used to driving long distances for the doctor while having easier access to a pharmacist. It becomes ingrained to ask the pharmacist for all kinds of advice on medical topics, not just on how to take prescription drugs but maybe when a condition warrants a doctor’s visit or when a drugstore product might help. 

At one point, the health policy director on my staff was a trained pharmacist, originally from a small town, so he brought a pharmacist’s perspective to my policy work. 

And for nearly a decade, after passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, while drugstores are being targeted for the pseudoephedrine used in cold medicine to make methamphetamine, pharmacists have played and continue to play a vital role in preventing the spread of methamphetamine labs by tracking the sale of pseudoephedrine. This is meaningful to me as a senator from a state with a methamphetamine problem and as the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Caucus on International Narcotics Control.  

What do you find most compelling about S. 314 that prompted you to introduce it?

Medicare has been in place for almost 50 years, and Congress has to make sure to tweak it as needed to keep up with the practice of modern medicine. We don’t always keep up, but we have to try our best. It makes sense to me to update Medicare to reflect the way pharmacists are already fulfilling their role in the health care system. Pharmacists are already providing tremendous value to Medicare beneficiaries on health care matters, and Medicare policy should reflect what’s happening in the field. 

Why is S. 314 good for rural seniors, taxpayers, and pharmacists?

A Medicare beneficiary who lives many miles away from a doctor in a rural area can’t always get to the doctor easily. Maybe the person no longer drives, and there’s no other means of getting to the doctor. But the individual might be able to get a ride from a neighbor to stop by the town pharmacy a few miles away. While there, the individual is able to pick up a prescription and talk with the pharmacist about managing blood sugar in diabetes or another medical condition. Maybe the individual discusses whether to get a flu shot and even gets the shot right there at the pharmacy. These are valuable interactions that are helpful for the individual’s well-being. Compensating pharmacists for their time and expertise encourages more such interactions. And it’s less expensive than if the beneficiary were to visit a doctor for the same consultation.  

Could you comment on your longstanding interest in access to medications and medication safety?

The role of pharmaceuticals in medicine has grown exponentially since the creation of Medicare. Congress recognized that and, in 2003, created the Part D benefit so that seniors would have access to lower cost drugs. It was called the Medicare Modernization Act for good reason. That law was written to make sure rural pharmacies had a fair playing field to protect access for rural seniors. As we have seen weaknesses in that fairness, we have worked with CMS to improve matters. When new drugs come on the market, the FDA needs to do a better job of following them through postmarketing surveillance and labeling standards to protect the public.  

What can our readers do to assist you in passing this legislation?
Please your Members of Congress, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives, about how this legislation would make a difference for you and the Medicare beneficiaries you serve. There’s no substitute for hearing from the grassroots about how a policy under consideration in Washington, DC, would help the people outside the Beltway.