NC MedAssist expands to serve entire state

NC MedAssist
NC MedAssist

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Through 2009, MedAssist of Mecklenburg provided free prescription drugs each year to 5,000 to 6,000 people in Mecklenburg County who had low incomes and were uninsured.

This year, as NC MedAssist, the nonprofit expects to provide free prescriptions to over 10,500 people throughout the state.

The growth reflects an expansion of the group’s service area from the county to the state, a move financed with a two-year, $2 million grant from the state Attorney General’s Office, through the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics, in the wake of a settlement the Attorney General’s Office made with the pharmaceutical industry.

In the fiscal year that ends June 30, NC MedAssist expects to have distributed $13.5 million worth of prescription drugs to low-income and uninsured North Carolinians, up from $8.5 million the previous fiscal year.

And 60 percent of the uninsured in the state earn 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, so a family of four, for example, can earn up to $44,000 a year and still qualify for service from NC MedAssist.

Donated by eight pharmaceutical companies, the free medicine addresses a big need in the state, says Lori Giang, CEO and executive director of NC MedAssist.

Data from the North Carolina Institute of Medicine show the state in January 2009 was home to over 1.6 million uninsured people, up 22.5 percent since 2007, representing the biggest increase in the uninsured population of any state in the U.S. in that period, Giang says.

“Our mission has not changed, to serve uninsured and low-income residents of North Carolina,” she says. “We’re still trying to get products to those who need it the most.”

Founded in 1997 by the Mecklenburg Medical Society Alliance and Endowment with a grant from employees at Presbyterian Hospital to serve senior citizens who had no prescription-drug benefits, the agency now operates with an annual budget of $2 million and 28 employees, 22 of them working full-time.

Over half the agency’s funding is provided by the state Attorney General’s Office, with the remainder coming from United Way of Central Carolinas, Mecklenburg County, corporations and foundations such as The Duke Endowment.

With the expansion by NC MedAssist to serve the entire state, clients now must complete only a single application form, even if more than one company provide them with prescription medicine, Giang says.

The agency works with about half of the roughly 75 free clinics throughout the state, with the clinics referring clients to NC MedAssist.

The eight drug companies make bulk donations of medicine based on the need the agency identifies in monthly reports to them, with no limit on the amount of medicine donated.

“So the more people who need us, the more medications we can provide,” Giang says.

NC MedAssist also has launched an effort to secure gifts of at least $1,000 from individuals, funds that will be used to help pay for the agency’s in-house pharmacy, purchase of generic medicines, and shipping.

“For every dollar people donate, we can bring $8 back to the community in free drugs,” Giang says.

Choosing whether to spend their limited funds on medicine or on other basic needs like food, rent and utilities is “a very cruel decision,” Giang says.

“Thousands of our residents in North Carolina,” she says, “make those choices every day.”

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