The nonprofit, which provides free medications to Franklin County residents living in poverty, has tripled its output in recent weeks

In early March, when Jennifer Seifert heard about Ohio State faculty members calling for the cancellation or postponement of the Arnold Sports Festival due to spreading risks from the novel coronavirus, her ears perked up. As executive director of the Charitable Pharmacy of Central Ohio (CPCO), she pays close attention to discussions regarding public health.

But the real turning point came when her son, a sophomore at Ohio State, was told in a letter from OSU President Michael Drake not to return to campus after spring break. “[CPCO] patients are an average of 60 years old and take eight medications, and if the students at OSU are supposed to stay home, then I'm absolutely confident we have to do something so our patients can stay at home,” Seifert said recently by phone.

Launched in 2010 and located at Livingston United Methodist Church, the CPCO annually serves about 1,500 patients, many of whom have medically complex needs. To qualify for free medications, patients must be Franklin County residents living at or under 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

After a staff meeting that first week of March, the Charitable Pharmacy began rolling out 60-day supplies of medication for its patients. Seifert and her team also started contacting the pharmacy’s charitable distributors to get variances that would allow the CPCO to qualify patients over the phone instead of in person. And, to keep patients safe while picking up prescriptions, the pharmacy implemented curbside service, in addition to mailing medications.

“We haven't had one-on-one contact for about five weeks now, so that was a big change for us,” Seifert said, though staffers and interns are able to have brief, masked, social-distanced conversations with patients during curbside pickups. “Normally, every month we do a one-on-one, 20-minute interaction with patients, and we’ve really mourned [losing] that process. ... It worries us that we don't have that contact with folks.”

While practicing social distancing, Seifert and her staff also extended their hours, working every day of the week to keep up with the increased demand for medication. “Last year we dispensed about $590,000 worth of medication from March 12 to April 12. This year, over the same four weeks, we dispensed about $2.4 million, so an increase of about 330 percent,” Seifert said. “And that’s the wholesale value.”

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While buried in an avalanche of prescriptions, the CPCO had to temporarily suspend the acceptance of new patients, though the pharmacy resumed accepting new patients in mid-April. Meanwhile, Seifert and her team are trying to equip patients for telemedicine while also working to overcome supply issues for certain medications — particularly insulin and blood thinners.

“People with certain heart diseases or cardiac events need to be on anticoagulant medications, and there's two that are the best therapeutically [Eliquis and Xarelto]. They're both $450 a month, and we don't get enough of them donated. The manufacturer does give some samples through a repository program, but it’s just not enough, so I worry about those patients,” Seifert said. “And until there is a major national change in our supply of insulin, our patients will continue to be at risk. Even though a generic [drug for insulin] came out, it’s still $180 a month. … Insulin access for uninsured patients and underinsured patients is a national crisis.”

Looking ahead, Seifert anticipates the COVID-19 crisis will intensify already-stark disparities in Franklin County. “The idea that we should be wearing masks to protect each other was late in getting to our underserved community. … The delivery of health care to the underserved, and their ability to get care — even when they’re frightened — I think that story is going to continue to evolve,” she said. “I think we should be asking our communities what it’s like for them. And I think that we are in a good position, a few months from now, to interview our patients and say, ‘What was it like for you?’ in order to really elucidate those issues that we need to try to solve. We can assume what they were. We can imagine what they are. But boy, I think we owe it to our patients to ask them how it was.”