Pharmacist-Lawmaker Frequent Prescriber of Pharmacy Legislation

April 23, 2013

Investigative Reports

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PillsCountry music star Kenny Chesney’s planned concert on May 4 in Columbia apparently was important enough for state Rep. Kit Spires to sponsor a formal resolution last week on the House floor welcoming Chesney back to the Capital City.

It wasn’t the Lexington County Republican’s first attempt at introducing frivolous legislation. In his first year as a House member in 2007, for example, Spires sponsored a bill that would have required that a minimum of seven House members and seven senators “actively play” in the annual “Capital City Softball Classic” between the chambers.

When it comes to serious legislation, though, Spires, a licensed pharmacist and pharmacy owner, has spent a great deal of his time on bills affecting his industry. A review by The Nerve found that of 22 general bills sponsored by Spires since joining the General Assembly, seven, or nearly a third, were pharmacy-related.

Spires has two pharmacy-related bills this session: H. 3161, which would establish new regulations for “compounding” pharmacies, or pharmacies that mix or modify medications to fit the particular needs of patients; and H. 3151, dubbed the “Pharmacy Patient Protection Act,” which, among other things, would ban pharmacy benefits managers from discriminating in certain areas when contracting with pharmacies.

H. 3161 has passed the House and is scheduled to be heard Thursday by a Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee. H. 3151, which Spires has unsuccessfully pushed since 2008, hasn’t moved out of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.

Two other unsuccessful pharmacy-related bills authored by Spires had companion bills in the Senate sponsored by another pharmacist, Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, records show.

Spires also is the author of a 2010 law that allows pharmacists to administer flu vaccines without a doctor’s order, based on a written protocol.

Spires’ pharmacy – Big S Discount Drugs in Pelion – is supported in part with tax dollars. For example, from April 14, 2012, through Friday, the pharmacy received $249,969 in Medicaid payments for prescription drugs and durable medical equipment, according to Colleen Mullis, a spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the state’s Medicaid program.

Spires, 59, has been a licensed pharmacist in good standing with the state since 1978; his for-profit company, Spires Pharmaceuticals LLC, was registered with the S.C. Secretary of State’s Office in 2001, records show.

No information relating to his business, however, is listed on any of his state income-disclosure forms filed with the State Ethics Commission since he became a legislator, The Nerve’s review found, though it is unclear whether he is required to do so under the state’s Swiss-cheese-like ethics laws.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Spires denied he had any conflict of interest in sponsoring pharmacy-related legislation.

“No – I can answer that unequivocally,” he said. “These are not personal bills of mine. … It benefits all pharmacists and not just me.”

“I respond to the needs of people in my district and other pharmacists in the area,” he added.

Spires is certainly a friend of the South Carolina Pharmacy Association, which, according to its website, represents more than 2,000 pharmacy professionals statewide. State Ethics Commission records show that the organization made a total of $2,500 in campaign contributions to Spires from 2008 through last year – the most for anyone seeking a legislative seat.

Pharmacy Association spokeswoman Jennifer Simmons did not respond to a written message last week from The Nerve seeking comment. Contacted by The Nerve, the association’s lobbyist, Richard Davis of Columbia, said he wasn’t aware of any “direct benefit” to Spires from bills sponsored by the legislator.

“Representative Spires is a great guy, a very straight-up guy, very honest and dependable,” Davis said.

Davis, who last year received $33,562 in lobbying fees from the association, said it is not uncommon for lawmakers to sponsor bills in their employment fields, adding, “It gives the bill more credibility.”

Spires, who noted his occupation is part of his biographical information listed on the Legislature’s website, said he would consider his sponsorship of a pharmacy-related bill an ethical violation if it benefited his business only. State ethics law bans lawmakers and other public officials from using their office to “obtain an economic benefit for himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated.”

In an email response to questions about state ethics law, Cathy Hazelwood, chief lawyer and deputy director at the State Ethics Commission, told The Nerve that a lawmaker would not necessarily be in violation of the law if he sponsored a bill that benefited both his company and other similar businesses.

“For legislators, the large-class exception would apply unless they were in some sort of truly unique business wherein there are only 10 to 12 businesses,” she said.

Since becoming a House member, Spires has not reported his pharmacy ownership on his annual statement of economic interests filed with the State Ethics Commission. State law requires public officials to report that information if they own at least 5 percent of outstanding stock in a company, and if the total value of those shares is $100,000 or more, according to Hazelwood.

Spires told The Nerve he owns no stock in his company. The Nerve in a story last week pointed out other lawmakers who own companies but who have not reported that information on their state income-disclosure forms.

State law also requires officials to report any payments from government contracts they received in the previous year. Spires did not report any Medicaid payments received by his company on his latest statement of economic interests filed on April 8 or on any of his previous income-disclosure statements.

Mullis, the Health and Human Services (HHS) spokeswoman, said there would have been an “enrollment process” for Spires’ pharmacy to receive Medicaid payments, though she didn’t respond to questions by publication of this story about whether there were any HHS contracts with his business.

In comparison, Sen. Cromer, also a pharmacist, reported on his latest statement of economic interests that he received $302,000 in Medicaid payments last year as a contractor with HHS. He listed himself as the owner of Cromer Medical Services and part owner of Pharmacy Partners.

Spires was among a majority of House members who voted last month in favor of a two-part section of the proposed fiscal 2014 state budget dealing with the annual appropriation to HHS, legislative records show. He also cast later votes approving the state budget as a whole, which includes HHS.

State law prohibits a business in which a lawmaker has an ownership interest of more than 5 percent from entering into a contract with a state agency if the legislator voted on that year’s section of the state budget dealing with the agency when general or other funds are involved.

The Nerve on Monday attempted to question Spires about Medicaid payments to his pharmacy and his state budget votes last month, but he declined to discuss specifics.

“I think I made myself perfectly clear on this issue,” he said. “I’m not going to answer any more questions.”

South Carolina is the only state in the nation that requires public officials to report just their government sources of income, according to a report issued earlier this year by the governor-appointed S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform. Forty-seven states require some type of disclosure of public- and private-income sources, the report said.

Legislation has been proposed this year to require that lawmakers disclose their private sources of income, though one such bill, H. 3945, would decriminalize many ethics violations, as The Nerve first reported Friday.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, last Tuesday launched “Project Conflict Watch,” an initiative aimed at getting public officials – starting with the 170-member General Assembly – to voluntarily report their private-income sources.

When initially contacted last week by The Nerve, Spires questioned how much personal information lawmakers should reveal to the public.

“I think this reporting thing goes a little too far,” he said. “We have a private life, too.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.