A new prescription: Revamped drug donation program helps underserved, keeps unwanted medications out of waste stream

Images of multi-colored capsulesBy Jan Stapleman | Office of Communications
Nonprofit TLC Pharmacy in Colorado Springs was struggling to provide prescription medications to indigent clients. Meanwhile, Colorado long-term care facilities were paying high costs to dispose of unused prescriptions according to environmental regulations. Donating the drugs to safety-net pharmacies such as TLC seemed like an obvious solution. But murky Colorado laws got in the way. 
Then two things happened to jump-start a formal process. First, a Web-based service named SIRUM, which makes it easy for facilities to donate prescription drugs to pharmacies, expanded into Colorado in 2014. Then, last March, Colorado legislators passed HB 1039, which clarified and broadened acceptable drug donation practices.
Several independently owned long-term care facilities and three safety-net pharmacies, including TLC, started a drug donation pilot program a year ago. During the pilot, TLC owner Frieda Martin called facilities to locate medications for her clients and drove to pick them up. The medications had to be in her hands while they were transported. Under the new law, and using SIRUM’s system, facilities now can mail medications to the pharmacies that need them.
Matching demand with supply
The SIRUM online system works like a Match.com for drug donation. Pharmacies post the names of prescription drugs their clients need and facilities log in to see what drugs are needed. SIRUM grant money funds shipping costs. 
Previous Colorado law limited drug donation practices to statewide emergencies. HB 1039, proposed by the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, removes that limitation and adds “Good Samaritan” liability protection to participating facilities and pharmacies. Waste Program Manager Joe Schieffelin, who testified on behalf of the bill, said larger chains now are jumping on board, happy to have a safe and legal way to get rid of unused prescriptions.
Right now, Colorado has a network of three participating pharmacies, and 45 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Since early 2014, the facilities have donated about 350 pounds of medicine worth more than $625,000 in wholesale costs. 
Hazardous Waste Compliance Assurance Officer Dan Goetz spreads the word about the new law and online system when he’s inspecting long-term care facilities. He said most facilities are interested in participating because the program reduces their waste stream and the high costs they pay to dispose of drugs legally. According to annual self-certification surveys, Colorado’s 220 long-term care facilities discard about 35,000 pounds of potentially reusable medicine annually, worth about $10 million. Reducing those numbers would benefit everyone involved.
“There’s no losing scenario here,” Goetz explained. “It’s win-win-win all the way around.” 
Kiah Williams, one of three co-founders of the nonprofit SIRUM, said, “Redistribution increases access to medicine for the most vulnerable Coloradans, including the 1 in 4 working-age adults who skips taking prescriptions due to cost.” 
Williams told the story of Natalie, a Colorado woman who went without her medications for hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure and heart palpitations because she couldn’t afford them. After she landed in a hospital a second time, she found her way to a safety-net pharmacy. 
“There are a lot of people like me falling through the cracks,” Natalie told Williams. “Unfortunately, when you can’t afford to take care of your health, you have to just let it go.”