Pharmacist-Congressman Looks to Fill Drug Stores' Wish List

Pharmacists have a new voice in Congress now that one of their own has been elected to the House, and he’s planning to be a “driving force” behind their top legislative priority, along with repeal of the health care law.

Georgia Republican Earl L. “Buddy” Carter arrives with more than three decades of experience as a pharmacist and nearly two decades as a mayor and state legislator. He’s currently the only pharmacist in Congress, according to the American Pharmacists Association, and is believed to be the first pharmacist who owned his own drug store to serve. Carter's three stores are now owned by his wife, a physical therapist.

“Anyone who is in health care who thinks that government doesn’t impact their practice is wrong,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be involved because it does have an impact.”

In an interview in his Cannon office, Carter laid out his health agenda for the 114th Congress and said he’s planning to join both the Congressional Community Pharmacy Caucus and the GOP Doctors Caucus. Two of his committee assignments — the Education and the Workforce and Oversight and Government Reform panels — also touch on health care issues.

Chief among his health priorities is scrapping the 2010 overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), which he said could ruin what he considers the greatest health care system in the world. Carter disputes the notion that free-market principles were not taking hold before the law was enacted, citing his own experience competing against Wal-Mart as a pharmacy owner. The mega-retailer started selling one-month supplies of common generic drugs for $4, a sum that Carter said suppliers weren't offering drugs for at the time.

“I said, ‘there’s no way. I’m not going to do this.’ Well, two weeks later I was selling prescriptions — generic prescriptions — for $4,” Carter said, noting that he went to his suppliers for help. “Wal-Mart, by their action in the free market, drove the prices of generics down. And that’s the way free market principles work in health care and that’s what we’ve got to have.”

Carter also plans to push for the American Pharmacists Association’s top priority, which would allow services and care coordination provided by state-licensed pharmacists in medically underserved communities to be reimbursed under Medicare. The bill, yet to be introduced in the 114th, garnered 123 bipartisan House cosponsors in the last Congress but never advanced.

Carter said he thinks it’s “vitally important” that pharmacists be compensated for delivering health care services and be recognized as providers, noting that pharmacists graduating today are more clinically prepared than their predecessors. That’s also true among other health care professionals, he added, emphasizing the need to take advantage of their broader expertise.

“The doctors are without question the leaders of the health care team — they are the quarterbacks and they are vitally important and should remain that way,” Carter said. “But at the same time, I think if we don’t recognize the professional, the clinical services that are available with so many of these other professions, these other health care professions, I think that we’re really missing the boat there.”

A Voice in Congress

Carter also noted that pharmacists are among the most accessible health care professionals, particularly in rural areas, and pointed to their potential role in boosting immunization rates. The association says pharmacists’ contributions are currently limited because they’re not federally recognized as care providers.

“With a pharmacist in Congress, I am confident that our nation’s health care policy will turn toward providing consumers with access and coverage for pharmacists’ patient care services,” APhA Executive Vice President and CEO Thomas E. Menighan said in a statement.

In addition, Carter is critical of Medicare policies that limit which pharmacies can participate in certain drug plans. He said patients have had to sever long-term relationships with pharmacies and doctors as a result and, in many cases, have to drive long distances to reach one that accepts their insurance.

“That’s not what we want,” he said. “What I have found in my practice has been that many times they just do without.”

Instead, he prefers the “any willing provider” approach, which has also been the subject of legislation. “If you’re willing to accept the reimbursement then, you know, you should be allowed to participate,” he said.