A pharmacy hand-delivers drugs to Congress, a little-known perk for the powerful
by ERIN MERSHON Oct. 11, 2017
WASHINGTON — If House Speaker Paul Ryan comes down with the flu this winter, he and his security detail won’t be screeching off toward the closest CVS for his Tamiflu.
Instead, he can just walk downstairs and pick up the pills, part of a little-known perk open to every member of Congress, from Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell down to the newest freshman Democrat.
Nearly every day for at least two decades pharmaceutical drugs have been brought by the carload to the Capitol — an arrangement so under the radar that even pharmacy lobbyists who regularly pitch Congress on their industry aren’t aware of it.
The deliveries arrive at the secretive Office of the Attending Physician, an elaborate medical clinic where Navy doctors triage medical emergencies and provide basic health care for lawmakers who pay an annual fee of just over $600. Every one comes from Washington’s oldest community pharmacy, Grubb’s.
Mike Kim, the reserved pharmacist-turned-owner of the pharmacy, said he has gotten used to knowing the most sensitive details about some of the most famous people in Washington.
“At first it’s cool, and then you realize, I’m filling some drugs that are for some pretty serious health problems as well. And these are the people that are running the country,” Kim said, listing treatments for conditions like diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
“It makes you kind of sit back and say, ‘Wow, they’re making the highest laws of the land and they might not even remember what happened yesterday.’”
Kim’s tiny pharmacy — which, at its busiest, sends as many as 100 prescriptions to members in a day — is nestled among Capitol Hill’s stateliest row houses, less than four blocks from the Capitol building itself. Founded in 1867 and named for a previous owner, the pharmacy predates penicillin, the American health insurance system, and even the Lincoln Memorial.
The two-story shop, with its bay windows and wood counters, harkens back to that history, though the computer systems and supplements inside aren’t far removed from your typical Walgreens counter — if all of Walgreens’s inventory was shoved into the nooks and crannies of three small aisles and labeled with individual stickers. At Grubb’s, staff will even scoop Hershey’s ice cream into cones out of a small counter in the corner, a modern-day nod to the marble-topped soda fountain once popular with the neighborhood kids.
The pharmacy mostly serves the staffers, lobbyists, and families who make their home in the quiet, leafy neighborhood just to the east of the Capitol building, though Grubb’s five drivers will deliver prescriptions across the entire city. Some 800 prescriptions leave its doors every day, filled by some three dozen pharmacists, technicians, and support staff.
The relationship between Grubb’s and the Capitol has gone nearly unchanged for decades, even as congressional leaders have pushed again and again to overhaul the nation’s broader health care system.
For the most part, lawmakers get the same prescription delivery service that any other customer of Grubb’s does. The pharmacy still bills each lawmaker’s insurance plan, whether it’s Obamacare, Medicare, or a local plan back in their district. Grubb’s keeps credit card information on file for copays and other purchases. There aren’t any discounts, Kim said. No special treatment.
Members of Congress do, however, sometimes get to skip the lines that other Grubb’s customers face — simply because of who they are.
“The Capitol kind of takes somewhat of a precedence just because of who we’re servicing,” Kim said, glancing toward the stately building from the front window of his shop. “The member might be calling to say, ‘Hey, I’m about to leave in five minutes, where’s my drug? So [the clinicians at the Capitol] get into panic mode as well. I wouldn’t say they’ve ever gotten frustrated with us, but it’s more of a concern like, ‘Oh my gosh, the member just called us, we need to know where the drug is.’”
Those busy moments are much more prevalent in winter, when lawmakers have been in session for a while and when they might be facing more late-night vote series, Kim said. During August recess, the Capitol pharmacy business — like much of the rest of Washington’s economy — slows considerably.
Most lawmakers know far more about the Office of the Attending Physician than about Grubb’s or its arrangement with Congress. In a STAT survey of some two dozen House and Senate members from both parties, only one knew about the single pharmacy that delivers all their drugs: Congress’s only pharmacist, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.).
“It’s a great opportunity for us as pharmacists, also, to showcase what we do, because that’s exactly what we do is take care of patients,” Carter told STAT. “This is another example of how we go above and beyond our call of duty to help people in health care.”
Others were quick to praise the Navy doctors and nurses in the Office of the Attending Physician, which counts at least one pharmacist and several technicians on its staff, too.
“If you have a vote and you can’t get home to your personal physician, you need to see somebody, and I’ll run over between votes and be able to keep my personal responsibilities going,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican. “It’s a convenience that definitely allows us to be more productive.”
“They’re good people, they’re always courteous. It’s a very difficult job they had, never had anything but the utmost cooperation from them — but don’t tell them that! They’ve injured me on several occasions,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joked recently to STAT.
Lawmakers describe the Office of the Attending Physician as a modern space much like a regular doctor’s office — though the $3.7 million budget it enjoyed for 2016 suggests a relatively well-furnished space. It’s strictly off-limits to reporters; staff there declined repeated requests for comment, and a spokesman for the House Administration Committee that helps oversee OAP declined multiple follow-up inquiries.
That’s perhaps because the office is not without controversy. Its services — and the relatively low fees that members must pay for access — were thrust into a harsh spotlight in 2009, as Congress began to debate the Affordable Care Act and as reporters began to ask how lawmakers’ own care might color their perspectives on policy. The central issue is the cost: In 2016, lawmakers paid $611 for annual membership — a fee that, unlike most health care prices, has risen much slower than inflation. In 1992, the first year the office charged a fee, it was $520.
The Office of the Attending Physician itself was formed in 1928, after three members of Congress died in their offices within months of one another — more than 50 years after Grubb’s first opened its doors.
But the pharmacy services at the Capitol may go back even further — a 1911 texton senatorial privileges describes an “assortment of drugs and viands, tonics and recuperatives” on hand and “readily accessible” for lawmakers. Back then, reportedly, senators took tablet after tablet and vial after vial of quinine, pepsin, and calomel, “endless supplies of cough drops,” and something described as “dandruff cure.”
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