Community Pharmacies Critical in Pharmacy Deserts

A new study reaffirms the vital role independent community pharmacies play in areas that lack access to prescription medications.

A new study published in Health Affairs reaffirmed the vital role independent community pharmacies play in areas that lack access to prescription medications.

Such “pharmacy deserts” are prevalent in inner-city communities like Chicago’s predominately non-Hispanic black neighborhoods, according to the research led by the University of Illinois. In fact, roughly 32% of Chicago’s 802 communities were classified as pharmacy deserts for having low-income residents with low access to prescription medications.

Compared to the entire Chicago population, independent community pharmacies covered a 20% higher share of the drugstores serving those minority neighborhoods between 2000 and 2012. The disparity worsened during that time period because the number of pharmacies in predominately white areas expanded by 20% without a similar increase in segregated black communities, the researchers determined.

In light of those findings, the authors suggested offering incentives to more independent pharmacies to relocate to communities that meet the definition of pharmacy deserts. Particularly, the researchers recommended increasing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement and including pharmacies in an Affordable Care Act provision that boosts payments for primary care providers.

“Our findings suggest that public policies aimed at improving access to prescription medications may need to address factors beyond insurance coverage and medication affordability,” the study authors wrote. “Such policies could include financial incentives to locate pharmacies in pharmacy deserts or the incorporation of pharmacies into community health centers in medically underserved areas.”

The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) is calling on Congress to go even further by enacting an “any willing pharmacy” policy that would provide Medicare patients in pharmacy deserts with greater access to discounted copays at independent community pharmacies. Additionally, the NCPA noted that passing the federal provider status bill into law would better utilize pharmacists as primary care providers in such underserved areas.