St. Vincent de Paul pharmacy helps when cost of drugs threatens financial ruin

'Since I've been here, my faith has grown'

CINCINNATI -- Debra Arrington has done the math every which way, and the answer always comes up the same.

Her monthly disability check is $853. Her prescriptions -- which include blood thinners and medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol -- total roughly $400 each month. And that doesn't even include the pain medicine she takes for her knees.

There's no way she could afford all that and still pay her phone bill, grocery bill, rent and utilities, she said, even with the government assistance she receives.

Fortunately for Arrington, the charitable pharmacy operated by St. Vincent de Paul of Cincinnati is there to help.

At least once a month, Arrington goes from her apartment in Westwood to St. Vincent de Paul's location in the West End or to the new satellite pharmacy at the Western Hills thrift store to have a health consultation with one of the pharmacists and get the refills she needs.

Debra Arrington

"It really has helped a lot," said Arrington, 59, who has been relying on the charitable pharmacy for years. "I don't know what I would be able to do without them."

That holds true for thousands of people throughout Greater Cincinnati.

Since the charitable pharmacy opened in September 2006, it has filled more than 320,000 prescriptions with a retail value of $36 million. This year alone, the pharmacy expects to fill about 46,000 prescriptions, said Mike Espel, the pharmacy director who has been with the program since it opened.

Even though the pharmacy relies mostly on medicines donated by doctors' offices, nursing homes and pharmaceutical companies, it rarely has to turn away anyone who qualifies for its services, he said.

Espel recalled a woman who desperately needed an insulin pump, which the pharmacy typically doesn't stock. But something almost miraculous happened.

"We had one sitting on a shelf, and it was the exact make and model that she needed. Out of hundreds of models," Espel said, his voice cracking with emotion. "Since I've been here, my faith has grown."

'I've sold jewelry'

People don't have to be poor by federal poverty standards to get help from the pharmacy.

They only have to be able to show that their expenses are greater than whatever income they have, making it difficult or impossible for them to afford their prescriptions.

St. Vincent de Paul of Cincinnati serves residents of Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren counties. While the perception is that all the pharmacy's clients are from the inner city, half come from the Greater Cincinnati suburbs, Espel said.

A Mason woman named Kathie is a case in point.

Pharmacy Manager Rusty Curington fills a prescription at St. Vincent de Paul's Bank Street location.

Kathie, who didn't want to give her last name for this story because she didn't want her neighbors to know her situation, went to the St. Vincent de Paul location on Bank Street on a recent weekday to find out if she qualified for help.

Kathie gets a monthly disability check for $1,200. But the medication she needs for ailments that include diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease total more than $300 a month. Until her doctor's office recommended she go to St. Vincent de Paul, Kathie was selling her possessions to try to pay for her prescriptions and the breathing therapy her doctor prescribed.

"I've sold jewelry. I've sold furniture," she said, her eyes welling with tears. "I sold my grandmother's engagement ring. That one is still hard for me."

Getting her prescriptions from St. Vincent de Paul could give Kathie some financial breathing room so she could put money aside for home repairs, the dental work she needs or to one day replace her 15-year-old car.

"This kind of came up when things were really bad," she said. "I have a lot of faith in God that he's watching over me."

A different doctor every time

Patients don't have to be Catholic or religious in any way to get help from the charitable pharmacy. But spend enough time there, and faith comes up again and again.

Pharmacy Manager Rusty Curington is the son of a Baptist preacher. He said there are countless times that he and pharmacy staff and volunteers have prayed for medication a client needs, only to have it show up as part of an unexpected donation the next day.

And the pharmacy has seen amazing improvements in patients' health after staff members and pharmacy residents help educate them about their medicines, how they work and how they interact with each other.

"A lot of patients who come to us are in a gap for care," Curington said. "Sometimes they go to free clinics and see a different doctor every time."

The pharmacy counts on pharmacy college residents, interns and volunteers to do everything from counsel patients to fill prescriptions to break open the blister packs of pills that are donated to the program.

College student volunteers help remove donated medication from blister packs.

While 75 percent of the medicine distributed by the pharmacy is donated, the program does have to buy certain things its patients need. Insulin and inhalers, for example, are a huge expense for St. Vincent de Paul, Curington said.

Half the patients the pharmacy serves are diabetic, and about a quarter of them have asthma or COPD, he said. Despite that, about a third of the people who use the pharmacy's services are smokers, he said.

The pharmacy recently won a $10,000 grant to start a smoking cessation program.

"People who can't afford their medications are smoking, and they can't afford their inhalers to treat the respiratory conditions," Curington said.

Curington plans to start a class for 30 people and will chart the data to see what kind of health improvements those patients see.

For the charitable pharmacy at St. Vincent de Paul, improving people's health is what it's all about.

And with the nation's changing health care landscape, Espel has no doubt that the pharmacy's services will be needed for years to come.

Arrington said she doesn't even like to think about what her life would be like without the program.

"A lot of us seniors on fixed incomes, we wouldn't know what to do without them," she said. "They have helped so much."

The Bank Street pharmacy location has been open since September 2006.

More information about how to get help from the St. Vincent de Paul of Cincinnati charitable pharmacy -- or how to donate to it -- is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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