By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
When President Donald Trump outlined his plan to fix the rising cost of prescription medications, two local pharmacists were among the 150 invited guests in the White House Rose Garden last Friday.
Thomas Drugs owners Paige Houston and Kathy Blackmon listened firsthand as President Trump spoke about fixing a problem long ignored.
“We were invited to go, which I was very honored,” Mrs. Houston said. “I’ve never been to the White House myself, the Rose Garden was beautiful.”
The two sisters were asked to attend the address and represent the area by former 2nd District U.S. Congresswoman and Dunn resident, Renee Ellmers, who is now the head of the Department of Health and Human Services regional office in Atlanta.
“She’s my neighbor and a friend,” Mrs. Houston said. “Renee being a nurse and former health care person, when she was my representative in Congress, I spoke to her several times about the system. When she found out the president was making the announcement, she asked me if I’d like to go to the announcement.”
Mrs. Houston said Mrs. Ellmers knew of her desire to see things get better for the patients who come through her doors and felt it would be of benefit to all involved if someone locally was on hand for the address.
“She said, ‘Paige, would you like to go for the announcement’ and I told her I would be honored,” Mrs. Houston said. “She knows that I care about community pharmacy, I care about my patients and she said I would be excited to hear what he had to say.”
While the scenery could have been a moment unto itself, the subject matter of the president’s address hit close to home for both women.
“We see every day at Thomas Drug Store how high prescription drugs are costing our patients,” Mrs. Houston said. “Especially with the changes in insurance and how people have these high deductibles — $4,000 deductible, $6,400 deductible, $10,000 deductible — up to that point they’re paying full price for their medications.”
Mrs. Houston says she believes the Trump administration has finally tried to pull back the curtain and get to the bottom of the issue, a bottom that for many years has been buried in a dark veil of non-transparency.
“The problem is the whole business model is not transparent, it’s very opaque,” Mrs. Houston said. “… I think there’s more to come, I just think they wanted to let us know they are looking into it and they’re working on it.”
Like President Trump, the two women agree it will be a lengthy fix to the problem. With all of the various parts of the business model currently used to get medications to the consumers, there are a lot of issues to address.
“It’s not going to be an overnight fix,” Mrs. Houston said. “And I think that’s why there was not a lot of detail in the announcement.”
According to a 39-page report handed out during the address, the system includes not only the drug companies and insurance companies and patients, there’s also the middle man.
Under the current system, the middle man negotiates prices between the drug companies and the insurance companies. All the while taking a percentage of the cost of the drugs from the manufacturers.
In essence, the middle man helps insurance companies decide what drugs will be on the formulary for patients. When the drug companies pay the middle men, they often offset the fee paid to them by raising prices.
Now, the president is attempting to curb such activities, even going so far as saying perhaps the middle men should be paid a flat fee.
The three largest pharmacy benefit managers make more than three times what retailer Amazon makes each year, a number that reaches into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
“There’s different moving parts, there’s not one thing (to focus on),” Mrs. Blackmon said. “It’s very complicated.”
One thing both women stress is the fact it’s a nonpartisan issue above all else. Both agree there’s no one party to benefit over the other, the only benefactors will ultimately be the most important, the people who are at the end of the line — the patients.
“It’s a nonpartisan issue,” Mrs. Houston said. “It’s not about politics, it’s about patients in our health care system and them having to pay so much out of pocket. This is about health care dollars, about patients being able to afford their medicines.”
The two women noted how the audience at the address themselves reflected the nonpartisan approach, one that touches all persons, not just Democrats or Republicans.
“Who we saw there were patients, doctors, I saw two other pharmacists, leukemia patients, kidney transplant patients,” Mrs. Houston said. “These were patients who require these specialty drugs, these high-cost drugs, who can’t afford it. And that’s who was sitting in the Rose Garden.”