While most of us only know pharmacists from the occasional trip to the drug store, the profession is a highly trained one with members who keep their eye on such larger issues as drug prices and the opioid crisis.

The Georgia Pharmacy Association, an educational and lobbying organization for pharmacists, is based at 6065 Barfield Road in Sandy Springs. The Reporter asked its CEO, Bob Coleman, some questions about what the association does, what it’s working on the Gold Dome, and what services pharmacists offer that might surprise you. For more information, see gpha.org.

Bob Coleman, CEO of the Georgia Pharmacy Association. (Special)

Q: What does the Georgia Pharmacy Association do that affects regular folks in the community?

First, I think it’s important to know who we are. The Georgia Pharmacy Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(6) organization that advocates for Georgia’s pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and their patients. The association operates under four pillars: advocacy, education, engagement and news/information. Advocacy is and will always be our primary purpose, with patient safety being the focus of our efforts. We either introduce legislation that benefits patients and our members, or fight to make changes or stop legislation other interests may introduce that we don’t feel are in the best interest of the patient.

Q: How did the organization come to be based in Sandy Springs?

The association was founded in 1875 in during a meeting held in Macon, Georgia. In recent history, the association was located in buildings that we owned close to Lenox Square. In 2014, we began looking for a new headquarters location that more closely fit our needs as an organization. After an exhaustive search, we felt our current location in Sandy Springs fulfilled those needs well, so we were able to lease space from the Georgia Association of Realtors. Being located at the intersection of Ga. 400 and I-285 is an easy location to find and being only a few blocks away from the MARTA station has worked out well when we have meetings with other organizations from outside of the state. It’s a simple hop on the train from the airport and head to Sandy Springs. Also, we are near Perimeter Center, so we have any number of restaurants to choose from when we need to hold meetings or entertain members and guests.

Q: Is there a particular issue the association is working on at the legislature that would be of interest to pharmacy patients?

That’s a hard question because, in actuality, there are quite a number of issues we are currently working on and any one of them could probably fill up a full page in your paper. But one of our major concerns is transparency and cost control. States are finding that, while managed care organizations say they save the state money by handling the state’s Medicaid claim management, they are actually doing the opposite. West Virginia is a good example. After doing a study, West Virginia found it saved over $50 million by moving away from managed care and handling Medicaid claims through the state. We’re convinced the same thing will happen in Georgia, but the data to prove that is often shielded from the state. We are pushing to bring transparency to the  information and save money for  the taxpayers in Georgia.

On another really important issue for patients across the state, we seeking enforcement of a new law passed last year related to patient steering. I’m sure some of your readers have already experienced it because it is so pervasive in the state. Basically, steering means that when a patient goes to the pharmacy they have been using for many years, they are told that they have to go to another, large, chain pharmacy or use mail order for their prescription. This breaks the critical relationship that patient had developed with their pharmacist. In many cases, it is illegal under the new law, but patients don’t know about it. So, if a patient feels they have been steered, they should report the details to the Georgia Board of Pharmacy. It can be done through its website here.

The Georgia Pharmacy Association logo.

Q: How has the association responded to the opioid crisis?

In several ways. First, we worked through a grant to measure and help educate Georgia pharmacists about naloxone. Naloxone is a drug can counteract an opioid overdose. We want to be sure that all Georgia pharmacists know it can be dispensed without a prescription. Many of our members have begun including naloxone and naloxone training for their patients who use opioids regularly to relieve pain related to a chronic condition. And, through the Georgia Pharmacy Foundation, we’ve partnered with local agencies to provide outreach where help is needed most.

Q: Most of us only know pharmacists from picking up prescriptions at the drug store. Is there a service or knowledge base that pharmacists have that might surprise us?

Yes! I highly encourage patients to take the time to build a relationship with their pharmacists. If you’re just running in and just picking up your prescription and heading out the door, you are doing yourself a terrible disservice. Pharmacists spend six years in school to receive their doctor of pharmacy degree and are the most knowledgeable resource available  for you on the drugs — both prescription and over-the-counter medications — that you take.

They offer Medication Therapy Management (MTM), where they sit down with you and go over your history and your medications to make sure there are no harmful interactions, as well as making sure what you’re taking is the best fit for you. It’s not unusual, through MTM,  for pharmacists to work with a patient’s physician to modify a course of medication in order to provide the most benefit or reduce costs for their patients.

Pharmacists also offer med sync, to lower the number of trips you have to make to the pharmacy. Pharmacists may also offer services like weight control or smoking cessation. And, of course you can get your annual flu shot and other immunizations at your pharmacy.