Vital drug discount program at risk

Annie Lambert is the oncology pharmacy manager at MultiCare Health System.
Annie Lambert is the oncology pharmacy manager at MultiCare Health System.

It’s our mission to take care of whomever walks through our doors. Whether in decent health, critically ill or unable to pay, it doesn’t matter. At MultiCare Regional Cancer Center, we help all of our patients get the care and medicine they need to get better and remain healthy or to support them through a terminal diagnosis.

Providing excellent care to the poor is a tall order, but a little-known federal program lends a helping hand. Established in 1992, the “340B” program requires pharmaceutical companies to give discounts on the cost of drugs to hospitals like ours that treat high numbers of needy patients.

Because the program is funded entirely by the drug companies, it doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent.

MultiCare Health System has been involved in this program for more than a decade. The impact of the 340B drug discounts is especially high for our Cancer Centers, where the price of chemotherapy and other anti-cancer drugs is skyrocketing. The savings allow us to provide more care to those who cannot afford it and to better serve our patients and community.

We are able to provide more comprehensive services to cancer patients, including dedicated pharmacists, nurse navigators, nutritionists and social workers. These services are critical in helping a patient, like one we will call Steve.

A married father of two, Steve was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. His family had no income and, during his cancer treatment, they became homeless and were forced to move into a shelter. At the same time, Steve lost his wife to a long struggle with heart disease.

Although Steve couldn’t afford treatment, MultiCare was able to provide quality care and support using 340B savings. Steve’s cancer is still terminal, but we helped him live to see his son graduate high school and start college.

We see patients like Steve almost every day. Lifesaving treatments are great, but only when they get to the patients who need them.

Unfortunately, some in the pharmaceutical industry want to change or eliminate the 340B drug discount program, even though it represents just 2 percent of U.S. drug revenues, which totaled a whopping $374 billion in 2014, according to an April 2015 report by IMS Health.

Roughly 70 to 75 percent of the patients we see at MultiCare Regional Cancer Center are uninsured or covered by Medicare or Medicaid. For MultiCare Health System, uncompensated care totaled nearly $24 million in 2014.

We appreciate that our representatives in Congress understand our need to provide a strong safety net for people in our region. We are happy to do it. Without this program, our efforts to serve all of our patients with the best care possible would be compromised.

John Rieke is the medical director of MultiCare Regional Cancer Center. Annie Lambert is the oncology pharmacy manager at MultiCare Health System.