TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The convenience of getting prescriptions filled at a kiosk could soon be a reality, under a bill moving through the state House.
But not everyone agrees it's a good idea.
A House health care panel on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill (HB 59) that would allow community pharmacies to use "automated pharmacy systems" to offer people access to prescription drugs.
An automated pharmacy system is a mechanical system that dispenses prescription drugs. The systems have video conferencing or video teleconferencing technology that allow patients to speak with a pharmacist about prescriptions.
Rep. Matt Willhite, a Wellington Democrat who sponsored the bill, touted the convenience the automated systems offer.
"A lot of times when you get out of the hospital and go to the pharmacy, they'll say come back in two or four hours," Willhite told The News Service of Florida. "Well, if a parent has a couple of kids in the car, they can't just go home, unload them, then load them back up to get stuff."
But Florida Pharmacy Association Executive Vice President and CEO Michael Jackson is worried that the proposal "has no guard rails."
"We don't have issues with the use of technology," Jackson told the News Service. "Our main issue is the details with how it's deployed."
The bill is supported by MedAvail, a Canadian-based company that manufactures the systems.
Florida law currently authorizes the use of automated pharmacy systems in institutional facilities. The Florida Board of Pharmacy in recent years gave approval for two systems to be used on hospital campuses, where they could be accessed by patients. Systems are currently in use in Jacksonville and Miami hospitals.
The bill would go further by allowing community pharmacies to launch and operate the dispensing systems.
"It's just an extension of the pharmacy that already is working in your community," Willhite said. "When the pharmacy is closed, this still would be open."
But Jackson also worries that the bill does not restrict the location of the machines to the same location as the pharmacy. He noted that the bill would allow the machines to be located wherever the pharmacy wants to place them, whether near the storefront or dozens of miles away.
"If the machines are not located in or near the vicinity where a pharmacy is located, if patients were to have a problem, what's going to happen?" Jackson asked.
But AARP Associate State Director Zayne Smith said Jackson's concerns about safety may be exaggerated.
"Not to sound crass, but what's worse, not getting the life-saving drugs you need or an adverse reaction?" she said.
Jackson's concerns, though, don't stop with the patient.
With no placement restrictions, he argued, the automated pharmacy systems could be more than an hour away from the pharmacist who is in charge of overseeing the system.
"How can I have comfort in knowing the machine is doing what it should be doing?" Jackson said. "How would I be able to inspect the machine if the system is many miles away from where I'm located?"
The machines also would have to be restocked, which means that a pharmacist or a pharmacist technician might have to travel miles with prescription drugs to replenish the automated system.
That also could be dangerous, Jackson said.
Not all prescriptions could be obtained through the automated pharmacy systems.
The committee on Wednesday agreed to amend the bill to ensure that no controlled substances could be obtained through the machines.
"We don't want anybody to try to break into a machine at night because they have an addiction or a problem," Willhite said.
The bill doesn't address whether patients could be charged a convenience fee for accessing the prescriptions through the automated pharmacy system.
Richard Pinsky, a lobbyist who represents MedAvail, said that decision would be up to the community pharmacy.
But AARP's Smith said the issue should be addressed as the bill moves along.
"This shouldn't be a cash cow (for community pharmacies)," she said. "This shouldn't increase prescription drug costs for people who use this machine."
A Senate companion bill (SB 708) has been filed in advance of the legislative session that begins in January.