Recycling could provide relief on two fronts

4/21/2008

Over the last couple of years, states have been experiencing mixed success with prescription drug recycling programs that give unused drugs to the uninsured and poor. These programs may get a bump thanks to an issue that has become very popular recently: disposing of medications in an environmentally safe manner.

A few months back, reports were coming in from across the country about medications ranging from antibiotics to antidepressants found in drinking water supplies. One of the reasons behind the contamination was that patients were improperly disposing of their unused medications.

Prescription recycling programs can now push a two-pronged benefit: first, providing medication to the poor and second, helping protect the environment.

States have taken up the issue of prescription drug recycling and in the process 33 states have passed legislation on the topic since 2005, including Colorado, Maine, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin, which passed legislation in 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states allow donations of sealed drugs from individuals, while others only accept pharmaceuticals from such institutions as doctor’s offices or assisted-living homes. Drugs typically are inspected by pharmacists to cross-check safety, and then are distributed by hospitals, pharmacies or charitable clinics.

In Iowa, which passed legislation in 2005, David Fries, chief executive officer of Iowa Prescription Drug, said the program has the potential to double or triple in the near future. Drug recycling programs pay for themselves “by just working with one patient and saving them and keeping them out of the hospital over the long term,” Fries said.

Between March and December of last year, Iowa’s drug recycling program collected 319,000 dosage units, worth an estimated $292,000.

Last year in Baton Rouge, La., a pharmacy filled 38,000 prescriptions using mostly donated medications.

A study by the private healthcare foundation Commonwealth Fund in 2006 found 59 percent of uninsured people with chronic conditions either skip a dose of their medicine or go without it because it was too expensive. One-third of that group visited an emergency room or stayed in a hospital overnight.

It would seem that the next step would be for the remaining 19 states to jump aboard and get a program rolling, but some states that offer the program are having trouble keeping it going.

In Florida, for example, a program created two years ago to get cancer drugs to the uninsured has stalled. Only three of the 300 hospitals eligible to participate have signed up, taking in a total of seven drug donations. Originally, it was estimated that $14.1 million would be saved from the program in Florida. Critics say the program has lacked publicity.

And since drug recycling programs rely on donations, they’re not seen as reliable long-term solutions. But when successful, officials say they can help plug gaps in medication for those who live paycheck to paycheck.

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