A lifeline for needed medication

Zachary Coppola, Yelena Galkin (center), and Sarah McIntyre at Health Center No. 10. LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ / Staff
Zachary Coppola, Yelena Galkin (center), and Sarah McIntyre at Health Center No. 10. LUIS FERNANDO RODRIGUEZ / Staff
Posted: June 20, 2012

The volunteers spend their days faxing, calling, copying, talking with people across a desk, filling out complex forms to get drug companies to give free medicines to people who cannot afford them.

It may not sound like the most exciting volunteer work in Philadelphia, but this award-winning project does have an impact. Besides helping patients get lifesaving medicines, it saves the city about $2 million a year.

A one-month supply of some drugs can cost from $300 to $500, so some patients "would have no other choice except to not take these medications and would have all the complications from their disease, and they would die from it eventually," said Yelena Galkin, an internal-medicine doctor who is clinical director of city Health Center 10 in Northeast Philadelphia.

The 16 recent college graduates are members of the Philadelphia Health Corps, a service program that is part of AmeriCorps, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. For the last few years, two volunteers have been helping get free medicines for uninsured people in each of the eight city-run health centers; 10 more are assigned to other health-related jobs around the city.

Around 600 applicants vie for the 46-week assignments in Philadelphia. They get a $5,000 stipend and may qualify for future education benefits.

At the city's health centers, half the 340,000 patient visits in fiscal year 2011 were uninsured. The city provides medication, free if necessary, but it cannot afford some of the more expensive brand-name drugs, said Thomas Storey, who oversees the health centers for the Department of Public Health.

The volunteers pursue those, along with other medicines that the city had paid for in the past and that are available to people who qualify from drug companies' patient assistance programs.

The drug companies filled nearly 22 million prescriptions through these programs nationwide in 2010, according to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. But each company has its own income limits, forms, and requirements for documentation and signatures, making applications difficult, especially for those who don't speak English.

"One company requires blue ink. Another requires black ink," said Sarah McIntyre, a 2011 graduate of Johns Hopkins University who is assigned to Health Center 10.

A couple of months ago, McIntyre said, she realized that a patient with Type 2 diabetes had not picked up a refill. She pursued her; the woman came in and conceded that she had not been taking her insulin. "It was such a small thing for me to do," said McIntyre, 23, who said experiences like that cemented her decision to apply to medical school next year.

John Piskorski lost his job at a Home Depot store a year ago. When he was short of breath during a heat wave last summer, the center gave him a quick-relief inhaler and helped him apply for free Advair. The medication retails for more than $100 a month, which he said was out of the question on his $1,528 monthly unemployment.

Piskorski, 58, a longtime smoker — "pretty stupid," he concedes — began talking with McIntyre about quitting. She searched for programs, spoke with his doctor, and got him on Nicotrol via Pfizer's patient assistance program.

"My little guardian angel," he calls her.

On Monday, the Philadelphia Health Corps was presented with one of nine "impact" awards by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which said the drug program had saved the city more than $8.5 million and helped 12,646 patients get free medications.

"It can be tedious work," said Chaz Shelton, 25, a volunteer at Health Center 6 in North Philadelphia. But when you have "six people in the household, they have an annual income of $13,000, and the patient says, ‘I just had a heart attack and I need this medication,'?" Shelton said, when the drug arrives, "that makes it real."

Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.

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