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Jul 13 2020

As COVID-19 Surges, Pharmacies Up Their Game with Increased Services, Including Testing

In late March, as New York State continued to serve as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo called on pharmacies across the state to offer home delivery services.  In doing so, he was likely unaware that more than 75 percent of the nation's pharmacies were already providing a delivery option to patients, many at no additional charge.

A few weeks later, on April 8, the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidance authorizing pharmacists to administer COVID-19 tests.  In announcing this authorization, HHS Secretary Alex Azar noted: "Pharmacists play a vital role in delivering convenient access to important public health services and information.  The Trump Administration is pleased to give pharmacists the chance to play a bigger role in the COVID-19 response…."

This important authorization comes at a time when roughly 20 percent of the nation's pharmacies are already certified to administer vaccines, with nearly every state allowing some degree of authority for pharmacists to provide vaccines.  According to the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), pharmacists can administer any vaccine in 46 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

And in July, the American Pharmacists Association reported on the role pharmacists are playing in helping patients manage mental health issues during the pandemic. The article cited analysis by Express Scripts which found a 34 percent increase in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, and an 18 percent increase for antidepressants.  Since pharmacists are routinely ranked at the top of "most trusted professionals" lists, it's hardly surprising that patients are turning to their pharmacists during this time of uncertainty.

"People are calling and wanting information," Clark Bishop, PharmD, of Hutton Pharmacy in Blackwell, OK told the APhA.  Bishop said he has noticed elevated levels of anxiety in patients, and says one of the best things his staff has been able to do is "manage patients' fear by providing accurate information and being an honest, reliable voice of reason."

For the typical pharmacy, each of these pandemic-induced services – home delivery, immunizations and patient counseling – are all in a day's work.  Of course the need for these services has been exacerbated by the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, but most pharmacies have responded with their usual high degree of professionalism and patient-centric service.

But despite the plaudits they have received during the pandemic, most pharmacists are painfully aware they lack official designation as health care providers.  And that lack of designation means they will not be compensated for many of the "extras" they provide.

"They do not have access to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement codes for providing medical services that go beyond filling prescriptions," Steven Chen of the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy wrote in a recent newsletter.  "This means they cannot be paid by the government or insurance companies for patient care services that they have the training to provide.  Without the recent authorization from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pharmacists would not have been able to perform COVID-19 testing."

Gaining provider status has been a front burner issue for many years.  Industry trade associations have worked hard in support of federal legislation and regulatory changes that would grant this critical designation.  The industry has come close, but has yet to achieve a final and complete victory.

In the meantime, pharmacists will continue to rise to the challenge and not think twice about serving patients throughout the pandemic.  It's important though, to keep careful track of all services rendered, even if reimbursement cannot be sought.  As momentum grows for granting provider status, it will be necessary to provide documentation of the scope and volume of services pharmacists routinely offer.

Tracking these services can easily be accomplished via a user-friendly pharmacy technology system, such as PrimeRx™ by Micro Merchant Systems.  Pharmacists can quickly add notes and observations to patient accounts following each interaction, and can even transfer those records among members of the patient's health care team.

The pandemic will abate at some point.  And when it does, we will all owe a debt of gratitude to the nation's pharmacists.  Offering them health care provider status will certainly be a good way to start!