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Column: Florida’s veterans deserve easier access to their prescriptions

By Gary M. Profit, special to the Tampa Bay Times
Published: January 11, 2018 Updated: January 11, 2018 at 04:39 PM
10/18/2011 Sebring, Fla. - RYAN PELHAM/STAFF_Brandi Heath, a pharmacy technician at Heartland Pharmacy, counts pills while filling a prescription on Tuesday. Florida's database for certain prescriptions, intended to curb prescription drug abuse, went live on Monday.

For most Americans, refilling a regular prescription is simple ó they pick up their medicine at their local pharmacy on the way home from work or while doing weekly grocery shopping. But for the more than 700,000 Florida veterans and beneficiaries of our active-duty military currently insured through TRICARE, the Defense Department health insurance program, obtaining some common maintenance prescriptions can be much more complicated.

Current policy requires patients to obtain maintenance medications either by mail or often inconveniently by driving to one of just 13 military treatment facilities across Florida, which is home to the nationís fourth-largest population of TRICARE beneficiaries. Our veterans and the families of our active-duty military deserve easier access to health care services.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in two American adults lives with a chronic health condition. Additionally, one in five households has a child with a chronic ailment. For the millions of adults and children insured through TRICARE who depend on maintenance medications to manage any one of a hundred common chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and epilepsy, for example, access to maintenance medications should be as simple as it is for the rest of us.

In addition to more convenient access to maintenance medications, TRICARE patients should also have the benefit of consulting directly with a pharmacist they know and trust about their medications rather than having to call an 800 number. As a licensed health care professional, their local pharmacist can discuss treatment and monitor for potentially harmful drug interactions, resulting in better, more consistent quality of care.

Change is possible. In 2016, Congress authorized the Defense Department to create a pilot pharmacy program that would allow TRICARE patients to conveniently fill maintenance medications at any pharmacy and to consult directly with their local pharmacist. Unfortunately, the program was never launched, and millions of TRICARE patients continue to face limited local access to maintenance medications, direct consultation and consistency of care.

In addition to the TRICARE authorization, Congress has taken other steps to increase access for veterans to health care facilities and treatments. For example, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., proposed a bill that would make it easier for veterans to access telehealth services. In Florida, lawmakers introduced a bill this year that would bolster funding for veterans health programs.

And while increased access to doctor visits is important, these proposals will have little benefit for TRICARE members if they canít easily access the maintenance medications that their doctors prescribe.

Recently, Anthony Kurta, retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and presidential nominee for undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, expressed his willingness to establish a pharmacy pilot program that will give TRICARE patients easier access to maintenance medications. With the ball in its court, the Defense Department should act quickly to make this pharmacy pilot a reality and make the lives of Floridaís veterans and their families a little bit easier.

Gary M. Profit is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and now serves as senior director of military programs for Walmart.