Hundreds of thousands of patients throughout Mississippi depend on a federal program that keeps prescription drug prices low. Now, thanks to an aggressive lobbying strategy by big drug manufacturers, this is in jeopardy.
Through the 340B program, the federal government uses its immense purchasing power to require prescription drug discounts in designated rural and low income areas – over half of Mississippi – by any drug manufacturers who want to sell their drugs to the Medicaid program as well.
That’s just good business sense – an example of government actually using its size to its advantage. Now, drug manufacturers are trying to use political influence to undo this smart approach. In so doing, they are threatening the fabric of an already strained rural health care delivery system.
It’s no secret that rural areas often face distinct challenges when it comes to providing quality health care for the surrounding area. With more than 50 percent of Mississippi residents living in rural areas, access to quality healthcare is an issue that affects half of our residents.
Right now, in recognition of how difficult it is to bring care to the aging populations in rural America, the government operates the 340B program. This program allows the government to match drug manufacturers with rural healthcare providers. Drug companies that participate are required to sell the drugs to these rural providers at discounts. In return, the providers are required to show and support, with data the large numbers of low income patients they serve in order to qualify for the program.
The drug manufacturer wins because they still receive a profit despite the discounts, gaining access to millions of patients that will be prescribed the medications they develop and manufacture. The rural provider wins by being able to purchase cheaper drugs and in turn, use those savings to remain a critical access point for the local, rural population.
As a doctor who works at one of the 20 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) in Mississippi, I often see patients who benefit from the 340B program. There are 95 rural hospitals in Mississippi, and the State has 31 hospitals identified as “Critical Access Hospitals”, a designation given to hospitals in rural areas. Ultimately, the rural and FQHC healthcare providers are able to pass on the cost-savings to the patients.
After over 25 years of success in delivering life-saving drugs to rural and underserved Americans, the prescription drug companies are seeking to dramatically change this discount drug program. Specifically, they want to reform the program so the discount benefit is smaller, narrower in scope, and ultimately, less useful for rural and FQHC populations.
We must remind our Senators and Representatives about the present challenges when it comes to accessing healthcare. Currently in the U.S., more than 40 percent of rural hospitals operate in the red, barely generating enough revenue to survive. Moreover, populations in our communities continue to age, and as the populations gets older, costs and needs for healthcare only continue to rise.
I truly hope our Members of Congress can come to the table and do what’s right in standing up to the drug manufacturers. Access to drugs for our vulnerable populations in Mississippi is a worthy cause, and our providers on the front lines need programs that enable them to serve the community well.
The 340B program is essential to providing medically necessary medications to the people who could otherwise not afford it. Our patients, our state, and the citizens of this great nation deserve to retain this vital program.