Columns | Daily Chronicle

Guest column: Prescription drug discount program a vital lifeline to quality, affordable health care

With the Illinois Legislature ready to end its spring legislative session soon, our health care facilities are dialing 911 to save the 340B program that provides prescription drug and other benefits for patients who have nowhere else to turn.

The Illinois Primary Health Care Association represents 54 community health centers serving communities across Illinois that serve as a vital lifeline for quality, affordable health care access for more than 1.5 million people – many of whom are low-income and uninsured or underinsured.

Since 1992, our centers have used the federal 340B program for critical discounts on prescription drugs. A prescription that would normally be $200 costs $25 under 340B, for example. Health centers use those savings to provide their patients with life-saving medications at a more reasonable price. Additionally, 340B savings also ensure our facilities can meet our patients’ needs in other ways: We can pay for adult dental care, transportation to other medical facilities, substance use treatment and other critical needs that simply would not exist without these funds from the drug discounts.

For people with no other options, free colonoscopies and mammograms, mobile clinics and free transportation to appointments are not a luxury that can be found elsewhere. They’re a necessity, and they happen at our clinics across the state only through the 340B program.

Today, 340B is holding on by a thread – and time is running short. In Illinois and across the country, restrictions from drug manufacturers on 340B are causing a crisis.

Health centers cover wide areas, across multiple counties. For decades, they worked with pharmacies to directly connect patients with 340B-covered drugs from convenience store locations. Now, drug manufacturers force centers to choose one location for 340B-priced drug distribution – forcing some patients to travel far out of their way if they want those medications. For the uninsured who have many challenges in their lives, that is not an option. Their care suffers greatly.

Our members are calling for help. In a recent letter to the four legislative leaders, the governor and other leadership in Springfield, IPHCA members outlined their concerns and warned staff layoffs and service cuts are imminent if something isn’t done soon.

“On the heels of a global pandemic that put a spotlight on the deep-seated inequities in our healthcare system, it is unconscionable to allow harm of this magnitude to Illinois’ under-resourced communities to continue unchecked,” they write.

Five other states have approved, and 20 others are considering, a solution modeled in Senate Bill 3727 that would simply stop the harmful restrictions on 340B that are threatening care. We are confident it will work here if given the opportunity. In Arkansas, multiple court rulings have now upheld a similar law despite a hard legal fight against it by the drug companies.

With just a few short weeks left in the session for action, we cannot let this opportunity slip away. We call on the legislature to approve Senate Bill 3727 and assure Illinoisans we will continue to support and protect health care options that are under attack.

• Ollie Idowu is president and CEO of Illinois Primary Health Care Association in Springfield.