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Medicine giveaway demonstrates high cost of health

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MedAssist volunteer, Queajia Holley (right) goes through the bag over over the counter medications she gathered for Melissa Arrington during a program where a non-profit medical group gave away over the counter medications to Greenville residents in need Saturday, March 25, 2017.


Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Monday, March 27, 2017

The cost of over-the-counter medicine is an overlooked topic in the ongoing debate about health care, advocates say.

Such medications are often the first line of treatment doctors turn to when helping patients with health conditions ranging from allergies to heartburn.

But with a 45-count package of Claritin, a non-drowsy allergy treatment, costing $26 and the heartburn medicine Zantac costing $25 for a 65-count package, some people spend as much money out-of-pocket purchasing these drugs than similar prescription medicines.

The struggle many Greenville-area residents face trying to keep their medicine cabinets stocked showed up en force over the weekend when more than 800 people participated in NC MedAssist's Over-the-Counter Medicine Give Away Day — many arriving hours before the event opened its doors at Koinonia Christian Center. The effort gave about $100 worth of free medicine to each person who attended.

"No one should go without medicine, and this program is enabling us to reach those who are unaware of our services," said Lori Giang, NC MedAssist executive director.

The event was hosted by Access East and Koinonia; Vidant Health Foundation sponsored the event which made $120,000 worth of medicine available to the community.

Participants received a form listing available medicines and selected the 10 they needed most. Volunteers then "shopped" for the items by collecting them from the stacks set up in another room. Volunteer pharmacists and other medical personnel were on hand to answer questions, Young said.

"A person may have diabetes and aren't sure which cough medicine they can use; they'll be on hand to answer those questions to make sure (people) are getting the right medicines to use," Young said.

The categories included cough, cold and flu; allergy; pain relief; digestive aids; laxative/hemorrhoid treatments; skin treatment; family planning products; sleep aids; children's medicine; and vitamins.

"We are finding that our patients and our participants want to be preventative, they want to have those vitamins, they want to take that allergy medicine because they don't want to go to the emergency room," Young said.

"But a bottle of fish oil (which contains Omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients important in managing heart disease) can cost up to $25," she said.

The event was supposed to start at 9 a.m., but when NC MedAssist staff and volunteers arrived at 7 a.m. people were waiting in their cars; by 7:30 a.m. a line was wrapping around the corner of the building. The decision was made to open the doors at 8:30 a.m. Within the first hour more than 50 people had received their medicine and another 200 were filling out the forms.

"I'm here to get medicine for cough and cold and flu and children's medicine," said Melissa Arrington, who runs the Little Willie Center with her husband, Marvin Arrington.

"I have two kids and one on the way and this definitely helps us out financially," Arrington said. "I've had at least five trips to the pharmacy or doctor's office this year. It's everybody in the house."

Arrington said she and her husband coach the families they work with to find services offered for free or lower costs so they can put the money they save toward other household expenses.

"Everybody's on a budget," she said. "Who doesn't want to save? This is a great opportunity to save."

Leonard Richardson of Greenville said he and his wife use coupons whenever possible to purchase over-the-counter medicine. The giveaway was a great opportunity to get more expensive items such as coenzyme Q10, a supplement believed to treat high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Richardson said the size of the crowd surprised him, especially because a majority of individuals were senior citizens.

"There are a lot of people struggling financially. They need help because they don't have insurance," Richardson said.

NC MedAssist received the medicines from Second Harvest Food Bank. The drugs mainly come from retailers who have to remove products because the drug manufacturer has changed the packaging or because it wasn't selling in certain locations, Young said.

Saturday's event was the second community medicine giveaway in three years, and 824 people received medicine. Allergy medicine was the first to run out, Young said, not surprising given the early start to spring.

But some medicine remained at day's end and it was given to Access East for use in its programs that provide free and reduced health care, Young said. Leftover volunteer supplies — which included breakfast and lunch food items and bottles of water — were donated to Community Crossroads Center, Young said.

At the first OTC event held in Pitt County in the spring of 2015, NC MedAssist served 320 people.

"Through the OTC partnership, we will be able to reach more and more individuals and educate them on our free pharmacy program resources," Giang said.

MedAssist offers three programs that address the needs of children and adults: the Free Pharmacy program, the Over-The-Counter Medicine program, and the Senior Care program. MedAssist dispenses more than $39 million worth of free prescription medication to 14,000 low-income North Carolinians each year.

Last fiscal year, NC MedAssist distributed more than $1.9 million dollars of donated OTC medication to North Carolina individuals and clinic partners. This fiscal year, the organization plans to distribute more than $2 million. For more information on the OTC Program and NC MedAssist, please visit www.medassist.org.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.