|The Dispensary of Hope, which offers sample medications to uninsured patients free of charge, started in 2006 at Saint Thomas Hospital West and has since grown to include more than 80 non-profit healthcare centers around the country. The Dispensary recently received the Catholic Health Association’s 2014 Achievement Citation for its commitment to carry on the Catholic healthcare mission of compassion and healing. Tennessee Register file photo by Theresa Laurence
On the main page of the Dispensary of Hope website it reads, “Billions wasted. Millions in need.” Those simple sentences sum up the efforts of this organization to collect unused medications from doctor’s offices and pharmaceutical companies to distribute to those who are disadvantaged and uninsured.
The Dispensary does not supply medications directly to patients; it joins forces with charitable safety net clinics and pharmacies by supplying their licensed providers with an inventory of donated, surplus drugs.
“We provide steady supply to between 200 and 225 of the most high demand chemicals and strengths needed in the U.S. primary care safety net,” said Chris Palombo, chief executive officer of Dispensary of Hope. “Each dispensing site agrees to enroll each patient, meaning that they review income and residency information to confirm that the patient is low income and uninsured.”
Typically, these uninsured patients are between 18 and 65 years old, with income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
It is a noble, innovative effort that garnered Dispensary of Hope the Catholic Health Association’s 2014 Achievement Citation, which acknowledges an outstanding program’s commitment to carry on Jesus’ mission of compassion and healing.
Dispensary of Hope began in 2006, when a doctor placed a bin inside a Saint Thomas Health system hospital, hoping to collect unexpired medicines that could be given to those less fortunate. From those humble beginnings, Dispensary of Hope became a subsidiary of Ascension Health’s Saint Thomas Health, with a staff of 13, and an operating budget of $1.6 million, which includes private foundation monies and grant funding from Ascension Health Mission and Ministry and the Foundations of Saint Thomas Health.
Almost immediately, the initiative’s reach stretched well beyond its home base in Middle Tennessee. Today it is the nation’s only fully-licensed, charitable, medication distributor that works across the entire spectrum of health care.
“Dispensary of Hope grew quickly and soon demand came from farther away than Nashville,” said Dr. Mike Schatzlein, president and chief executive officer of Saint Thomas Health. “Because our supply of medicine was greater than our local need, we began helping other communities and eventually grew to become a national ministry of the Church overseen by Saint Thomas and Ascension Health. Ensuring that unused medicine, likely destined for incineration, is provided to the poor and vulnerable represents good stewardship and smart healthcare.”
The process works like this: medication manufacturers and physicians donate new product or medicine that might be within months of reaching an expiration date. The pharmaceutical companies mail packages or deliver the medications by truck; participating physicians – more than 1,300 in the United States – receive reusable “Hope Boxes,” which they fill with sample medications and ship to the Dispensary.
At a warehouse, Dispensary staff track and log every shipment that arrives, and post available medications to an on-line inventory. Medications are then distributed to more than 80 not-for-profit access sites, including federally-qualified health centers, free clinics and charitable pharmacies. In turn, those sites use the drugs to fill prescriptions free of charge for eligible recipients.
That may sound simple, but it requires competing drug manufacturers, competing health systems, and funders, each with their own agendas and priorities, to play nice. According to Palombo, the Dispensary’s ability to bring together these sometimes disparate entities may have been an impetus for its 2014 recognition by the Catholic Health Association.
“As a national collaborative effort sponsored by Saint Thomas Health, and its parent company, St Louis-based Ascension Health – the nation’s largest Catholic and largest non-profit health system – each partner has agreed to join together for the good of the patient and the common good of the collaborative,” Palombo said. “I believe the inspiration for the award was the powerful partnership and neutrality espoused by the partners in this project, as well as the thoughtful stewardship of resources and focus on the poor.”
The Dispensary estimates that between 2009 and 2013, $29 million worth of medication – more than 5.8 million doses – was dispensed to patients served by its network clinics and pharmacies.
“Our most current information is that 40,000 people are served across the U.S. each year by the Dispensary of Hope,” said Palombo. “Many of these people are very ill, and need more than one prescription.”
Although the Affordable Care Act will help many who have never had access to health insurance before, the Congressional Budget Office claims 30 million people will remain uninsured after the the Act’s full implementation. That means the demand for the Dispensary’s resources will not go away any time soon.
“We can assume that 30 to 40 percent of those will have a chronic illness and will need medications,” said Palombo. “Many are of such low income that there will be no way that they can afford basics for life, including medication. The result is that even after the ACA, this collaborative effort will be desperately needed.”
For more information about the Dispensary of Hope or to donate, visit www.dispensaryofhope.org.