COMMUNITY VOICES: The (preventable) public health disaster that is looming over California

By Vince Fong

Millions of Californians who depend on life-saving medications are now facing the threat of seeing their access to health care cut off. It’s a looming disaster that comes from new Medi-Cal reimbursement rules drafted by state bureaucrats in Sacramento, under former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration. These newly adopted rules make substantial cuts to Medi-Cal reimbursement rates to local pharmacies, putting them at risk of closure and harming our public health. The previous administration did not consider the profound risk to the state’s community pharmacies and the Medi-Cal beneficiaries those pharmacies serve. Changes to these rules must be made immediately.

Our local pharmacies currently invest time and resources to dispense critical specialty medicines and ensure that patients are briefed on the proper way of using them. The level of care that goes into dispensing these medications to “high touch” patients requires great time and care. These pharmacies have long played a vital role as a link between Medi-Cal patients and the medicines they need to live. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol would be affected, as well as our state’s most vulnerable individuals with HIV, heart disease, cancer and behavioral health disorders.

As a son of a local pharmacist, I know firsthand how the reimbursement cuts will affect this vital safety net in Kern County and reduce access to lifesaving medicines. In the communities I represent, there are 29 independent community pharmacies. All of them are at risk of shutting down due to the financial squeeze posed by these cuts.

Those difficulties are compounded by the new rules adopted by the California Department of Health Care Services, totaling a $67 million annual cut in Medi-Cal reimbursements. Making the situation even more dire, the department has also announced its intention to retroactively claw back payments on Medi-Cal claims covering the past two years.

Facing these types of losses and heavy-handed collections on past payments, it’s not hard to see why many pharmacists would have no choice but to close their doors. No pharmacy should be faced with the false choice of stopping service to Medi-Cal patients just to stay financially afloat. This would pose a significant hardship to California’s most vulnerable population — seniors and low-income residents — who are enrolled in Medi-Cal. They would have to drive longer distances to get prescriptions filled or could be forced to give up on regular medication altogether.

All of these changes would create a domino effect. It is going to cause more individuals seeking medical assistance at emergency rooms, which means longer wait times and a higher cost of care. Perhaps most sobering, high-risk patients could face losing their life to treatable illnesses. More people with behavioral health challenges would end up without the treatment they need to stabilize and recover.

This is a looming crisis that is entirely preventable. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration must rescind these harmful rules to protect access to affordable health care for those who can least afford to be without it. Let’s protect the critical health care safety net for the residents of Bakersfield, Kern County and California.

Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, represents the 34th Assembly District.