Dispensary expands efforts to funnel surplus medications to underserved

April 15, 2012


A nonprofit dispensary that collects surplus pharmaceuticals and then distributes them to clinics for people in need is asking for the ministry's help to expand the scope of its work.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based Dispensary of Hope is working to increase the number of physician offices and other medical practices that donate surplus medications to the dispensary, from the current count of 600. It wants to increase the number of U.S. clinics that receive medications from the dispensary and then dispense them to their low-income clients, from the current count of 80. The Dispensary of Hope also is piloting a program to provide surplus medication to clinics for the needy internationally.

Dispensary of Hope representatives explained during a CHA-hosted webinar last month that Catholic health care providers can play a critical role in the expansion, and there are numerous benefits to getting involved. "Doctors, patients, hospitals, the community — they all benefit" from medication donation programs, according to Bill Hoey, vice president of mission services for St. Vincent's Health Services of Bridgeport, Conn., one of many Catholic health care providers involved with the Dispensary of Hope.

Hoey was one of four presenters of the webinar, "Dispensing Hope — Matching Medication Surplus with Need," which apprised CHA members of the Dispensary of Hope's operations and plans. The other speakers were Chris Palombo, chief executive of the Dispensary of Hope; Dan Simpson, the dispensary's chief development officer; and Bill Solberg, director of community services for Milwaukee's Columbia St. Mary's Hospital, which is involved with the dispensary.

Fill the box
Presenters encouraged CHA members to ask their affiliated physician offices to take part in the dispensary's "Fill the Box, Fill the Need" program. The Dispensary of Hope supplies a plastic bin to the doctor's office, which office staff fills with surplus medications then ships, at no cost to the sender, to the dispensary's Nashville distribution center. The shipment of an empty bin back to the doctor starts the virtuous cycle again.

The dispensary accepts nonperishable medications. Normally the physician offices donate samples that they receive from drug companies.

The webinar presenters explained that donating medications in this way avoids waste and eliminates the costs of safely disposing of drugs. It takes staff more time to appropriately dispose of medications than to donate the drugs, they said.

Both St. Vincent's and Columbia St. Mary's are part of coalitions of health care providers whose affiliated physician offices donate medications to the dispensary and whose charity care clinics receive donated medications for their patients.

Palombo explained that it benefits health care providers to use the dispensary as a supply chain "middle man" because donation processing is the dispensary's core work, and so it knows how to do it efficiently and effectively, and in compliance with regulations, whereas donor hospitals and physician sites may lack such expertise. Additionally, Palombo said, since the dispensary receives a wide variety of medications, it can meet the specific needs of individual clinics, sending the drugs where they are needed and will be used.

St. Vincent's Hoey noted that in just a year, St. Vincent's affiliated physician offices have sent $100,000 in medications to the Dispensary of Hope. The Dispensary of Hope, St. Vincent's and Columbia St. Mary's are all part of St. Louis-based Ascension Health Alliance. Ascension Health's Saint Thomas Health of Nashville has provided the bulk of the Dispensary of Hope's funding, in the form of a charitable investment.

Medication dispensers
Webinar presenters said the program is open to charity care clinics, community clinics and federally qualified health centers. Applicants must first undergo an assessment by the Dispensary of Hope to ensure they are the right fit (for instance, they must be in a state that has licensed the Dispensary of Hope as a qualified medication distributor). Clinics accepted into the network take part in an orientation and then receive help from the Dispensary of Hope in setting up the infrastructure to receive and dispense medications.

Solberg said in Milwaukee, a free clinic for the homeless — an affiliate of Columbia St. Mary's — works with the Dispensary of Hope to keep medications on hand. Convenience equals access in this instance, he said, because when medications are not immediately available, homeless patients don't always return to the clinic to have their prescriptions filled.

It can cost clinics money and staff time to become a local dispensing pharmacy for the Dispensary of Hope. The Medco Foundation is offering assistance to bring some clinics onboard. It is helping them to put in place medication management systems and drug safety systems. It also is training clinic staffs to use those systems.

International reach
Until recently, the Dispensary of Hope concentrated its work in the U.S. Palombo said the idea arose last year to expand into international distribution as a way to put all stocks to good use. While the majority of donated medications are successfully shipped to U.S. clinics, about 10 percent to 15 percent of the medications expire at the dispensary's distribution center, amounting to an estimated waste of more than $700,000 annually. The dispensary also has to pay about $8,000 annually in medication disposal costs.

Working with CHA's international expert Bruce Compton, the Dispensary of Hope determined that many of the medications that were going unused are not in demand in the U.S. but are heavily in demand in developing countries. Compton, who is CHA senior director of international outreach, said these medications could be donated overseas and used before their expiration.

The Dispensary of Hope is encouraging ministry providers to volunteer to serve as dispensing sites to clinics in developing countries. The Dispensary of Hope will help them to set up the necessary infrastructure during the pilot.

Compton said that the pilot will help the Dispensary of Hope and the ministry dispensing site to confirm which surplus drugs are most useful overseas.

Palombo explained that while the Dispensary of Hope may directly dispense medications overseas in the future, it is focusing on its domestic work for now.

Organizations interested in any of the three opportunities — to be a medication donor, U.S. dispensing site or international donation partner — should contact Palombo  or Simpson. Or they can visit the dispensary's website.


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.