NEWPORT, Ky. — Kellee Yelton was a receptionist at a doctor’s office in Norwood and had health insurance in January 2020 when she went on short-term disability to have foot surgery.
“Then the pandemic hit,” she says.
Four months later, Yelton of northern Kentucky lost his job. She had to move in with her sister. And she could no longer afford essential prescription drugs for diabetes and hypertension.
“I tried to go into unemployment and just couldn’t,” said Yelton, now a resident of Southgate. “I never could.”
A doctor told her about Faith Community Pharmacy, a nonprofit organization that for 20 years has been providing free prescription drugs to people in northern Kentucky who can’t afford them.
Yelton’s situation is typical among new clients of Faith Community Pharmacy: they are less often retirees. These are people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Sometimes it’s people who have returned to work but don’t have insurance or a premium so high they can’t afford prescription drugs. These are people who are now making choices between food and gas, medical bills and utilities, because they can’t keep up with inflation.
It’s the new face of the need for free prescription drugs, said Aaron Broomall, executive director of Faith Community Pharmacy.
The rise of those customers, coupled with more traditional customers — older people living on Social Security checks — is why the service moved this month from a Florence office to a new location: Watertower Square. at 601 Washington Ave. in Newport.
Moving to Newport brings free pharmacy closer to new customers
Workers were there on a Wednesday morning, moving shelves in a space more than three times the size of the operation’s former pharmacy in Florence. They moved in printers, chairs, counters and more in preparation for the June 6 opening.
The location couldn’t be better for service, Broomall said. Watertower Square is the hub of services. The visibility will bring even more customers to Faith Community Pharmacy, Broomall predicted. The new location is on a bus route – useful for people with limited transportation options or money for gas, and it’s in the urban core of Northern Kentucky, where many customers of the pharmacy.
To bring the service to more people, the organization plans to increase reach in churches, schools, clinics, and emergency and urgent care services. For rural customers, another growing group of registrants, Broomall said, “We will deliver their prescriptions.”
Drug costs are hurting Americans during the pandemic
What this free pharmacy sees is a slice of what’s happened in America since the pandemic began.
A GoodRx survey released in March 2021 shows that one in three Americans saw their personal drug costs rise in 2020. Nearly 40% said they had difficulty paying for their prescription drugs and more than 20% said they were struggling. to pay for basic needs, such as food and housing, accordingly.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for people to access health care in general by depleting their savings and expanding the pool of uninsured patients who need regular medications,” GoodRx reported.
The Faith drugstore trend didn’t start with the pandemic but soared with it. Its customer base has jumped 60% since 2017, with 30% of those listings in 2020. The increase has slowed, Broomall said, but listings continue to grow.
“It’s really difficult to have a chronic disease”
Yelton is among those who have remained enrolled at the pharmacy even after being hired eight months ago, again as a receptionist. She said her high-deductible insurance prevents her from paying for her medications at this time.
Faith Community Pharmacy will provide 90 days of medication to anyone in a 14-county area of northern Kentucky who seeks help. It provides medication on an ongoing basis to those earning 300% of the poverty line and below. They mainly relate to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and asthma which disproportionately affect low-income people. Mental health medications are also part of the free prescriptions.
Pharmacy costs are covered by funding from Boone, Campbell, and Kenton counties, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, foundations such as the Spaulding Foundation, grants, and monetary and in-kind donations. Most drugs come from Americares non-profit.
On a larger scale, the costs translate into better health, Broomall said.
This is illustrated by research from Faith Community Pharmacy. The organization tracks the ER visits and hospitalizations of its clients from the year prior to enrollment through the first year of enrollment. The result? Client visits to the ER are reduced by at least half and hospitalizations by 70% based on the entire patient population.
“What we are doing is essential,” Broomall said. “It really empowers people to live their lives. What we do empowers them to stay at work, support their families, and be healthy for their children.”
“It’s hard to be poor,” he said. “It’s hard to have a low income, and it’s really hard to have a chronic disease.”
The organization’s three pharmacists, the pharmacy technician, interns from the University of Cincinnati School of Pharmacy and volunteers are aware of the challenges their clients face, Broomall said. That’s part of why Faith Community Pharmacy is a “high-level” service, he said: a place where customers have lots of time with workers.
Yelton wasn’t used to getting outside help before meeting Faith Community Pharmacy, but she felt comfortable with the staff from the start.
“They’re so nice,” she said. “There are times when, you know, I work and I’m single, and sometimes I can’t leave work to get my prescriptions. They’ll bring them to me.”
“Thank goodness for programs that do this for people,” Yelton said. “The way the economy is right now…you just can’t live.”
Faith Community Pharmacy is open 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.