August 22, 2008

Free Clinics Upset With Possible Changes to Prescription Rules


West Virginia's free clinics are balking at proposed rules that would change how they dispense prescription medication.

They warn that rules being drafted by the state Board of Pharmacy will make it harder for them to give medication to the thousands of West Virginians without health insurance who rely on the clinics.

But the board, which successfully sought the ability to make the rules during this year's legislative session, says the new regulation will improve patient safety by bringing the clinics in line with what pharmacies and hospitals around the state already do.

The agency has until Aug. 29 to draft a final proposal, after which it will be submitted to the Legislature during next year's session.

The state's 10 free clinics are pushing for changes to the language they've seen so far, arguing its proposals would stretch their budgets beyond the breaking point.

"The Board of Pharmacy rule says we have to have a pharmacist present at all times," said Patricia White, executive director of the West Virginia Health Right clinic in Charleston.

"Pharmacists are in high demand right now," she said. "It's difficult to get a pharmacist to volunteer at a free clinic."

The free clinics, which dispensed about 500,000 prescriptions last year, are not currently regulated the way free-standing pharmacies and hospital pharmacies are, meaning that pharmacists and doctors don't have to be present at all times.

David Potters, executive director of the pharmacy board, said the agency is drafting the rules with as much flexibility as possible, for example requiring a pharmacist in charge to be present at free clinics for fewer hours than are required of commercial pharmacies.

Potters said the agency proposes to regulate the clinics as "charitable pharmacies," allowing more leeway, noting that similar laws exist in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia.

"We have tried to be creative and tried to be flexible with how the free clinics operate," Potters said.

The disagreement has turned publicly acrid, with both sides accusing each other of scare tactics and bad faith.

With the Health Right clinics in Charleston and Beckley administering the state's highly touted new West Virginia Rx program, which sends medication to patients through the mail, politicians have felt pressure to help resolve the dispute.

Gov. Joe Manchin is hoping to get both sides meeting and working on compromises they can live with, spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said.

"We're going to work with the Board of Pharmacy and the clinics to make sure they're coming together on this," she said. "We need to have the rules in place, but we also need to make sure they accomplish what was intended."

About 245,000 West Virginians don't have health insurance, while roughly 250,000 more have no prescription drug coverage as part of their health insurance.

The state's free clinics are located in Wheeling, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Clarksburg, West Milford, Charles Town, Huntington, Charleston, Bluefield and Beckley, with the Beckley clinic operating a satellite location in Hinton.

Originally published by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

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