by Sen. Shirley K. Turner & Dr. Kemi Alli

The pandemic has resulted in an economic catastrophe for many New Jerseyans. Since March, New Jersey’s unemployment rate soared to over 16 percent, the highest the state has seen since it began recordkeeping. 1.58 million individuals have filed claims for unemployment benefits, and due to the high volume of claims, many claimants had to wait months to receive benefits.

In addition to the loss of income, COVID-19 also caused many workers to lose their health insurance. As of May, 2020, New Jersey’s uninsured rate increased to 13 percent, leaving more people paying out of pocket or relying on Medicaid. Months with no income and no insurance disrupted household budgets, leaving many with the impossible choice of paying rent, buying groceries, or filling prescriptions.

No one should be in the position of going without their prescriptions because they need to stretch their dollars. Yet, one in four people do. Prescription drugs help people to effectively manage many serious health problems, including heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and to avoid burdening the public health care system with more costly health care interventions, such as visits to the emergency room, hospitalizations, or surgery. With more households facing a financial struggle, the need for a safety net is not only crucial, it’s life-saving.

Fortunately, the State of New Jersey has already enacted a law that, when implemented, can provide healthcare assistance to the thousands of families making these impossible choices. P.L. 2017, c. 254 was signed into law on January 8, 2018, authorizing the establishment of drug donation programs that would not only improve the health of low-income individuals, but also reduce the cost to the state. The law required the New Jersey Department of Health to create a program to allow healthcare facilities like pharmacies and nursing centers, to donate to those in need, rather than destroy, unused medications and supplies.

A program that makes prescription medications affordable not only helps to keep people healthy, it is also an important cost-savings measure for the state. According to the Center for American Progress, state spending on Medicaid prescriptions has increased more than 89 percent over the past 10 years. In fiscal year 2020, New Jersey’s average cost per prescription, per beneficiary was $77.03. Providing access to donated medications at no or low cost will help to reduce state Medicaid spending and save taxpayer money.

The Health Care Association of New Jersey (HCANJ), the state’s largest long term care trade association, helped to promote the prescription drug donation law out of their member centers’ concerns about having to dispose of so much unused, but still viable, medication when resident medication needs changed or residents passed away. According to a 2009 Associated Press report, healthcare facilities throw away an estimated 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals each year. HCANJ hoped to recycle unused medications and make them available to those who cannot afford them through a program modeled after those successful in other states.

Henry J. Austin Health Center is ready to bring this solution to the residents of Trenton today. Founded in 1986, Henry J. Austin Health Center is a community-based health center that provides comprehensive healthcare services to low-income residents. Like most community providers, they have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 and are seeing increased need for medication access amongst their patients.

Henry J. Austin Health Center has formed a partnership with SIRUM, a national nonprofit and the largest medicine redistributor, to launch this program. SIRUM has redistributed more than $80 million worth of medications to partners and facilitated more than 800,000 donated prescriptions to those in need. With the support of SIRUM’s technology and resources, Henry J. Austin Health Center is ready to operationalize this program immediately.

All that is needed to move such a valuable program forward is authorization from the New Jersey Department of Health. The citizens of New Jersey and the thousands of patients at Henry J. Austin Health Center need and deserve the additional help that this drug donation program would provide.

Senator Shirley K. Turner is the sponsor of P.L. 2017, c. 254 and represents New Jersey’s 15th Legislative District in the New Jersey Senate, covering parts of Hunterdon and Mercer counties.

Dr. Kemi Alli is chief executive officer of the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton.

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