Nonprofit hopes to foster more collaboration to serve the tens of thousands in Franklin County who go without needed medications

A dozen years ago, people working in the areas of food insecurity and housing insecurity in Franklin County noticed a common thread: Many community members were going without the prescription medications they desperately needed.

In 2008, an Ohio Medicaid survey confirmed the observations with a disturbing number: 149,000 Franklin County residents reported going without prescription medications due to cost. In response, through grassroots community efforts, the Charitable Pharmacy of Central Ohio (CPCO) was launched in 2010. Located at Livingston United Methodist Church, the Charitable Pharmacy annually serves about 1,500 patients with an average age of 60 who come from 1,300 different physicians’ offices, according to CPCO executive director Jennifer Seifert.

“We've always seen the medically complex patients,” Seifert said. “Our average patient takes eight daily medications, and the maximum currently for a couple of our patients is 27 daily medications. So we're here to really help with the most complicated of our neighbors in need.”

To receive the free medications, patients have to be Franklin County residents living at or under 200 percent of the federal poverty level and experiencing a lack of access to prescription medications. Once they qualify, patients spend 20 to 25 minutes with one of the pharmacy’s 13 team members every time they come in; last year, the Charitable Pharmacy logged 10,000 one-on-one encounters with patients.

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The free medications come from nine different sources; some are purchased, but the majority are donated. The CPCO is also considered a repository pharmacy in Ohio, which allows it to take unused medications from nursing homes and samples from doctor's offices. Last year, 350 volunteers donated more than 5,000 hours to the Charitable Pharmacy, and much of that time is spent sorting medications.

Now, Seifert is looking to collaborate more closely with organizations in Central Ohio that are providing services to the same population. To that end, through a grant from the Columbus Foundation, the Charitable Pharmacy is hosting its first Medication Access Summit at Livingston UMC on Wednesday, Dec. 4 (registration is now closed). The summit aims to bring together healthcare organizations, government and social services agencies, and pharmacy leadership to foster more collaboration.

“We want to start opening up very strong channels of communication in our community to solve this issue,” Seifert said.

By 2015,  the number of Franklin County residents reporting a lack of access to prescription medications dropped from 149,000 to 80,000, which Seifert attributes to the efforts of the CPCO combined with the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid. But that means tens of thousands in Franklin County are still going without medication. Seifert said mental health issues, in particular, often go untreated. “Forty percent of our patients take a medication to improve their mental health, and they report to us a tremendous hopelessness around medication access and care for their mental health,” she said.

But Seifert is encouraged by the progress being made in the Columbus area, so much so that quite often healthcare professionals and community leaders in other states ask her how they can start their own charitable pharmacy. And so, the CPCO is using the rest of the Columbus Foundation grant to make a video on how to launch a charitable pharmacy (look for it at charitablepharmacy.org in the next couple of weeks). 

“We are doing something really positive here in Central Ohio,” Seifert said.