U.S. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra stood in front of the counter at Grubb’s Pharmacy (326 E. Capitol St. NE) shortly after they opened on Thursday, Jan. 12. He thanked owners Michael & Joan Kim, who stood behind him, for being members of the community, “and not just waiting for folks to come in your door, but going out and reaching people where they are.”
“It sure is nice to know that there is a community pharmacist right now that’s willing to go out,” he said. “Maybe [you’re] not as big as some of the big guys, but probably more important and more loved, because you do it for the community.”
The secretary’s appearance at our picturesque Hill drug store was part of a celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act. Passed in August 2022, the act is intended to lower prescription drug costs and to make health insurance more affordable.
The legislation gives Medicare the ability to negotiate the cost of prescription drugs for the first time in American history, Becerra said. This encourages drug makers to create new ways to do business so they can stay competitive. The law requires that the first 10 drugs to be negotiated be chosen from a list of the highest-spending, brand-name Medicare Part D drugs that don’t have market competition. That list will be released to the public in September.
IRA already makes insulin more affordable by capping out-of-pocket cost at $35 for millions of Americans on Medicare starting Jan. 1. At the press conference, senior Julia Gales said this was critically important for folks like herself on a fixed income.
A 48-year resident of Columbia Heights, she said she was diagnosed with diabetes 14 years ago. “It was a rude awakening,” Gales said. “I never expected to be a diabetic. It was difficult trying to figure out —or should I may be get some food first?” She said the impact of the IRA makes things easier on her and her peers, allowing them to receive needed services without forcing them into those difficult decisions.
The importance of access to vaccines was also emphasized. People with Medicare drug coverage pay nothing out-of-pocket for adult vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), including the shingles and Tetanus-Diphtheria-Whooping Cough vaccines, starting in 2023. Most adults enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program will also be guaranteed coverage of ACIP-recommended vaccines at no cost to them beginning October 1, 2023.
At Grubbs Jan. 12, seniors from Vida Senior Centers (1842 Calvert St. NW), including Gales, received their shingles vaccine. Shingles is a recommended adult vaccine that can cost up to a few hundred dollars. As of January 1, the shingles vaccines is available to people with Medicare with prescription drug coverage for free —including at Grubbs.
Dr. Maria Teresa McPhail, CEO of Vida Senior Center said virtually all of the seniors served by the center live under the poverty line. “For us, it is fundamental to have a holistic approach where we can cover the basic needs of our seniors,” she said. Vida serves 1,000 Latino seniors across eight wards from ages 60 to 90 on site, facilitating access to services like nutrition, behavioral and mental health for visitors and even for 100-year old seniors who find it harder to come to the center. She said these services are fundamental, but mean nothing if Medicare services such as vaccines and medication are inaccessible to them.
After she received the shingles vaccine, Vida Senior Zerferina Avila spoke at length in Spanish with the secretary. Although Becerra is the 25th HHS Secretary, he is the first Latino to hold the office in the history of the United States. Avila is fully vaccinated, Becerra recounted her telling him in Spanish. But her friend Blanca is not. So the Secretary took her phone and to speak to her friend, trying to convince her to get vaccinated. “[Blanca] has promised to get vaccinated,” Becerra told the crowd. “So I now am either obligated to call her with Zeferina or go to her home,” he said.
Secretary Becerra noted that Vida boasts a 100 percent vaccination rate for the seniors who come to the center get vaccinated, an astounding success rate. “That’s a thrill to hear, and I’ve got to go see it,” Becerra said.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) facilitated work between HHS and senior centers. President and CEO Ramsey Alwin said the IRA will make a real difference in the lives of older adults, especially those with limited income. “Cutting prescription costs and extending free access to all vaccines is going to go a long way to keeping all Medicare beneficiaries safe and healthy,” she said, noting the savings free up money to address basic needs such as nutritious meals. NCOA partners with more than 10,000 faith-based, senior centers and villages like Vida and Capitol Hill Village (CHV) in DC. They have launched a portal to apply for resources at ncoa.org.
Representatives from Capitol Hill Village joined in the event, invited by NCOA; those in attendance said that most had received their vaccines earlier in the season.
CHV Board Member Bruce Brennan was one of the six attendees who, along with Executive Director Judy Berman, turned out to show their support for access to healthcare as well as their local pharmacy. “I’m here to stand up for the village and let the secretary know about the local efforts that organizations like the village are doing,” Brennan said.
Attending the event was beneficial, Brennan noted, and helped him learn more about what the federal government was doing to help seniors with the IRA. “It tells me what my organization can do to spread it out, and spread the word.”
See hours, get info and make appointments for your vaccines at Grubb’s by visiting www.grubbspharmacy.com