Few things can cause a greater sense of sticker shock in America than getting the bill for a bottle of pills not covered by insurance.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that Americans spend $458 more per capita on prescription drugs compared with 19 other industrialized nations, and prescriptions represent 17 percent of overall U.S. personal health care services. The study blamed these skyrocketing costs on the result of "granting government-protected monopolies to drug manufacturers combined with coverage requirements imposed on government-funded drug benefits."
Hank Hermann, a longtime volunteer with the faith-based community charity the St. Vincent de Paul Society of North Texas, noticed how some people he helped in his spare time were struggling to pay for their drug costs and all their other expenses.
"Hank walked away from this many times over the years and said, 'This just isn't right,'" says Kate Rose Marquez, St. Vincent de Paul of North Texas' director of marketing and development.
Hermann learned about other free pharmacy programs around the country during one of the nonprofit group's national conferences in 2004 and was shocked that not one of them was based in Texas. Ever
"This is my way of giving back," Hermann says. "I've been afforded a lot of blessings in life, and I wanted to do what I can to give back."
Hermann's first visit to a free pharmacy program took him to Baton Rouge, La., when he first started pursuing a similar program for Dallas.
"It looked like a pharmacy," Hermann says. "It looked like a professional operation, and you're providing medicine to enable someone to maintain their health, and without them, they might not be able to take them at all or take a pill every other day. It's just not right."
More than a few obstacles were in Hermann's path. For starters, a poorly worded Texas law prevented opening a free pharmacy center. Free pharmacies usually depend on donations of recycled medications from pharmaceutical companies and distributors, nursing homes and other medical clinics, but the law prevented charitable clinics from accepting them. He and the society reached out to Christus Health to help find legislators who could change the law to allow their free pharmacy to accept donated medications. The law finally passed in 2007.
Hermann faced another challenge in 2009 when the great recession made finding donations difficult. His plans were delayed for another two years until the local St. Vincent de Paul Society received a grant from the group's national office to help get things moving.
Hermann says although the Affordable Care Act was about to roll out as his project faced delays, he knew people would need the help even with insurance, and this kept pushing him to pursue his pharmacy.
"At that time, what I was certain about was there were going to be a lot of uninsured people who could not afford their prescriptions even with Obamacare," Hermann says. "Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the country, and the poverty rate in the area is very high."
Sometime later, Hermann and the society were able to round up enough medication donations and set up a legal pharmacy called the St. Vincent de Paul Pharmacy that could meet the prescription needs of the impoverished, who often have to choose between feeding themselves or affording their medications.
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"We can really help people immensely," Hermann says. "In addition to helping provide prescriptions to the patients we serve, there's a huge societal benefit. We can cut down on charity traffic to emergency rooms, and that will sure save a lot of money for the taxpayers."
No one in the society was more determined than Hermann to open the free pharmacy, even when legal and financial hurdles made it seem impossible.
"This was a labor of love for Hank, and remember, he’s a volunteer," Marquez says. "He did it just because he felt like it needed to be done.”
The pharmacy receives donations of drugs from pharmaceutical makers and other nonprofits. People with valid prescriptions but without health insurance who live in households making less than 200 percent of the poverty level in Dallas, Collin, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Hunt, Kaufman, Navarro and Rockwall counties are eligible. For more information or to start applying for assistance, call 469-232-9902 or visit the St. Vincent de Paul Society of North Texas' website. The pharmacy is located in the Northwest Bible Church Community Center in Vickery Meadow.