The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the vital role safety net hospitals play in confronting a crisis. Across the country, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others have provided heroic service to care for people stricken and to protect their communities from harm. The health care safety net has undoubtedly saved many lives and will continue to do so as we battle this pandemic together.

To prepare for COVID patients, many hospitals have had to spend enormous sums to make sure they could do so safely and effectively. Hospitals have also had to postpone non-emergency procedures to make sure their beds were open for COVID patients. The billions in lost revenue were a fair price to pay for our national health, authorities have said.

One way hospitals have been able to weather the storm is the 340B drug savings program. Created in 1992 on a bipartisan vote in Congress and signed by President George H. W. Bush, 340B lowers the cost of outpatient prescription drugs purchased by eligible hospitals, health centers and clinics by requiring drug makers to discount their prices. The savings from those discounts can then be invested in caring for more patients, especially those with low incomes or living in underserved rural communities. The 340B program is not funded by taxpayers.

Thanks to 340B, North Arkansas Regional Medical Center (NARMC) has been able to provide and improve services such as chemotherapy infusion and stroke care, a press release said. In addition, NARMC provides millions of dollars of uncompensated and unreimbursed care to the community each year.

“NARMC opened the first drive-thru COVID-19 testing center in north-central Arkansas, which is still operating today, “said Josh Bright, NARMC vice president of operations. “Since the pandemic, we have taken steps such as implementing a telehealth program, procuring additional protective equipment and critical medications, purchasing ultraviolet germicidal equipment, and preparing additional space to create a COVID-19 ward. During this stressful time, 340B has been a lifeline to hospitals like ours.”

Across the country, 340B savings are used in a variety of ways for patients. While 340B hospitals represent only 38% of all hospitals, they are responsible for 60% of all uncompensated and unreimbursed care in the country and 75% of all hospital care for Americans on Medicaid. They are much more likely to offer vital but often unprofitable services like trauma and burn care, HIV/AIDS services and inpatient mental health care. In many rural communities, savings from 340B are the difference between a hospital staying open or closing its doors.

Today, the 340B program is under attack by a group of drug companies that have taken the law into their own hands and tried to limit access to drug discounts in the middle of a pandemic, Bright said. Two major companies have gone so far as to say they won’t abide by the law and offer discounts on some or all of their drugs if they are dispensed in local community pharmacies. Three other manufacturers have sent letters to hospitals like ours demanding reams of claims data for drugs sold by pharmacies. If they don’t get what they want, they have threatened to take more punitive steps including refusing to provide the discounts the law requires.

These attempts to circumvent the law must be stopped. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has the authority to tell drug companies to stop taking critical resources away from safety-net hospitals by enforcing the law. NARMC has recently signed a letter to Secretary Azar urging him to take action before more drug companies follow suit and our safety net is left in tatters, Bright said.

Additionally, legislation must be addressed ensuring the 340B program has a healthy future supporting safety net providers.

“Recently, Sen. John Boozman joined a bipartisan group of senators to co-sponsor legislation that helps protect hospitals like NARMC,” Bright said. “We appreciate Sen. Boozman’s support of the 340B program, caring for America’s rural and vulnerable patients. Now is the time to protect 340B.”

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