Redirecting Medicine to Those in Need

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In her typical nursing home room, Genevieve Barns watches the snow fall outside her window with a black rosery draped over her lap. An oxygen concentrator, which helps her breathe, bubbles behind her. At the age of 94, she's lost most of her sight, so she depends on her hearing to pass the time.

Genevieve Barns: I love classical music and opera, all kinds of music - except hard rock.

Barns was on a common medication called Mucinex, to help keep her throat clear. But her Doctor took her off of it. Normally, her unused Mucinex would be sent back to the pharmacy for destruction. But Barns lives at Admiral's Point Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center. It's one of three nursing facilities in the Sandusky area contributing to a small drug repository. Barns says it was a simple choice to give medicine she can't use to needy seniors.

Genevieve Barns: Well, everything is so expensive. And if you waste you're just squandering things that could be used by someone else.

Karen's Law, passed in 2002 and effective two years later, made it legal for Ohioans like Barns to donate unused medicine. Once there's enough of any one drug to make a 30 day supply, its available seniors who otherwise couldn't afford it. Admiral's Point Head Administrator Denise Day collects the drugs in a blue plastic tote.

Denise Day: We don't have a huge cliental in this building at this time. But the number of medications that get sent back is still quite incredible.

The bin in Day's office is filled with pills and bottles sealed in their packaging. She says what's here comes from patients covered by Medicaid; unused medicines covered by Medicare or private insurance typically go back to the pharmacy, where they're incinerated and patients get a refund. Day says still about $2,000 worth a month, from just 34 patients, are collected and given to the organization Serving Our Seniors. Its director Susan Daugherty says if every nursing home in Erie County donated from just half their patients, the results would be astounding.

Susan Daugherty: Honestly we could meet and probably exceed the need of Erie county older adults who needed access to drugs that treat are common to the aging populations. It could do a whole lot of good with a whole lot of waste.

The tote from Admiral's Point travels by courier to Burderer Pharmacy, in Sandusky. In the back is a room with shelves of medication going all the way to the ceiling. This is the Drug Repository. Matt Buderer, in his white lab coat and round glasses, takes over from here.

Matt Buderer: And you'd have a sorter, and the sorter would look through the package and say 'oh, this drug starts with an M, it's called Metforman' and as you can see he has three tablets left, and we'd say 'oh yeah, Metforman goes in the 'M' box.'

Next the drugs are checked for their expiration dates and whether they're eligible for donation.

Matt Buderer: And then what we want to do is take these drugs and poke them out of this thing in to a bottle, making sure that what goes on the bottle is the lot and expiration date.

Seniors who've signed a waiver and received a card from Serving Our Seniors can then buy any medication for a flat fee of $7.40.

Matt Buderer: You can dispense one tablet, you can dispense 15, you can dispense a billion for $7.40.

The Board of Pharmacy in North Carolina says it recycles 5 to 6 million dollars of drugs paid by tax payers every year. Burderer says Ohio could be matching those numbers, if only there was more participation.

Matt Buderer: There's good public knowledge out there that large quantities are picked up daily and incinerated. That could be used. So I'm sure a large Institutional Pharmacy knowing that certainly isn't saying 'well, we don't care.'

But Susan Daugherty at Serving Our Seniors says many nursing homes and wholesale pharmacies either don't respond to her pleas to donate, or claim liability as a reason to keep destroying usable drugs. Omnicare Corporation, which provides 90% of Ohio's nursing homes with drugs, including Admiral Point, declined to participate in this story.

Over coffee at a Diner in Massillon, where another drug repository struggles to grow, State Senator Kirk Schuring says the immunity protection free clinics have applies to organizations who donate their drugs. He wrote Karen's Law and now a new bill to mandate participation or require a statement of why a company will not donate. He says recent hearings for Senate Bill 228 garnered unexpected results.

Kirk Schuring: Interestingly enough, that has caused the interested parties to come to the table and talk about how they might participate in Karen's Law.

Schuring says Ohio's Nursing Home Association and some pharmacies have tentatively agreed to endorse the program. In return, he's suspended hearings on his new bill until the end of February. But if negotiations fall through, Schuring says hearings will resume in March. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.

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