New York pharmacists will not be allowed to immunize customers once...

New York pharmacists will not be allowed to immunize customers once a coronavirus vaccine is available due to a recent State Legislature decision. Credit: Getty Images/tommy

As we find ourselves amid the greatest health care crisis of a lifetime, now is the time to do all we can to make access to health care as widely available as possible. That will be especially critical when a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Unfortunately, the State Legislature has just missed an opportunity to do so by neglecting to expand the ability for pharmacists to administer all vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means that when the time comes, and a COVID-19 vaccine is available, New York pharmacists will not be allowed to immunize our residents.

The most frustrating thing is that the opportunity to change this was right in front of our lawmakers. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had smartly included a provision to expand pharmacists’ authority to vaccinate in his executive budget. But legislators disagreed and that provision was scrapped.

Cuomo will have to issue an executive order to allow pharmacists to help deal with what will certainly be an unprecedented crush of people wanting to be immunized when the coronavirus vaccine is developed.

The legislature’s decision is certainly shortsighted given our current situation. But for the long term it is also a dangerous precedent. Our health system needs to be as flexible as possible for other unknown challenges we could face in the future. Here’s the thing: pharmacists vaccinating New Yorkers has already proved to be a win for public health.

Since pharmacists gained the right to vaccinate in 2008, immunization rates for the flu have increased dramatically. That led to the program being expanded to include some vaccines being available at the pharmacy — but confusingly, not all.

In a time like now, when other medical facilities are either not available or overwhelmed, pharmacies play a critical role for patients.

Additionally, there are potential cost savings to the overall health care system from a reduction in fewer emergency room or provider office visits due to avoidable illnesses.

Administering immunizations is not a competition among health professionals. Rather, it is a collaborative mission among physicians, nurses and pharmacists to help us all achieve greater health protections for all residents of New York.

Right now, New York is leading the way in combating the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. I am disappointed the State Legislature did not follow Cuomo’s lead by including this critical provision. It is imperative that at the earliest opportunity, lawmakers enact similar legislation to prepare New York for not only the availability of a coronavirus vaccine, but to widen the availability of all vaccines that prevent diseases.

Medical providers across the health care community are being pushed to the limit. Why when we had an opportunity to lighten that load would we not take it? 

Lawrence H. Mokhiber is the former executive secretary for the New York State Board of Pharmacy.