Prescription drugs in a medicine cabinet
Prescription drugs in a medicine cabinet. FDA photo by Michael J. Ermarth via Wikimedia Commons

Communities of color across California have been savaged by COVID-19. A study from Stanford University shows the extent of the impact on Hispanics in California and confirms that Hispanics, the largest population cohort in California, were disproportionately devastated by the pandemic.

The study found that Latinos were 8.1 times more likely to live in conditions with higher exposure to COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white counterparts. They also have a higher COVID mortality rate at 59.2 per 100,000 versus 38.3 for whites, meaning they have been 1.5 times more likely to die from the virus.

In San Diego, the impact was no different. Out of the 3.5 million residents in San Diego County, more than 1 million are Hispanic, with the majority living between the Mexican border and Mission Valley. There are relatively few hospitals and pharmacies in this area and limited health services.

For example, of the current hospitals in this area, only two are trauma centers, and both are north of El Cajon Boulevard. National City and Chula Vista each have one small hospital. They serve 500,000 people. 

For the Hispanic community, seeing a doctor or obtaining a specific treatment means traveling further and even, for some, taking a day off from work. Because of travel, seeking care — even from charity clinics — is more costly for low-income Hispanics. Little has changed from the racially segregated San Diego of my youth.

With COVID already ravaging this community, and already limited hospitals, why are certain special interests trying to pass legislation that would reduce prescription drug access in our communities? 

I’m referring to Senate Bill 524 sponsored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, who represents the east San Francisco Bay area. The bill bars “patient steering” by health care service plans and their agents that requires patients to fulfill their prescriptions at a particular pharmacy. But what if there’s no suitable pharmacy nearby?

Recently, a friend of mine injured her leg. I drove her to the nearest emergency room that would accept her insurance –a UC San Diego hospital 36 miles away. There she received a prescription for a “specialty” medication that, because of the highly sensitive nature of the drug, only certified pharmacists with higher levels of safety training were licensed to distribute. Despite being a pre-dawn emergency, we were able to go to a 24-hour specialty pharmacy and get what she needed. 

If Senate Bill 524 was enacted, nothing would have been improved in how my friend received her treatment, and several things would have been worse.

For starters, SB 524 would have lowered the safety standards required for pharmacies to handle specialty drugs. Patients who depend on these specialty drugs would be serviced by less qualified and potentially untrained pharmacists.  

Furthermore, the cost, both for the prescription and emergency room treatment would have been higher if SB 524 was law. 

SB 524 also would take away essential tools employers and unions use to negotiate lower health care costs for their members and employees. And in the longer term, my friend, who has relied on mail order prescription services, would face higher costs for those same prescriptions.

Here’s the bottom line: SB 524 will hurt communities of color already severely affected by the lack of access to healthcare and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is no accident that the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other groups oppose this bill

Why the California Legislature would consider passing a law that has the potential to harm patients for someone else’s bottom line is beyond me. I urge a ‘no’ vote on this harmful legislation.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a Marine Corps veteran, political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.