Photography provided by St. Vincent de Paul
Mike Dunn, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – District Council of Cincinnati, was preparing to meet with a colleague one day in mid-September when he encountered a woman who’d come to the organization for assistance.
She was in her mid-70s and living on a fixed income. She and her husband, who’d recently passed away, had raised two children now living on their own as adults. With no help from family nearby, she was struggling to pay for medications crucial to her survival.
That’s how she ended up at St. Vincent de Paul’s Charitable Pharmacy, which since 2006 has provided more than 360,000 prescriptions valued at more than $42 million to neighbors across Cincinnati. It’s the only standalone charitable pharmacy in southwest Ohio, and provides free pharmaceutical care to the underinsured or those without insurance.
The woman told Dunn she had been using the pharmacy for the past 10 months, but the most difficult part for her was taking that initial step to receive assistance.
“The hardest thing for her to do was to ask for help,” Dunn says.
While most people are familiar with St. Vincent de Paul and its portfolio of services, particularly its thrift store, the Charitable Pharmacy is among the offerings that might not be as well known to the general public. Neighbors, the term the Society uses for those receiving help, often learn of the pharmacy through the Vincentians (St. Vincent de Paul volunteers) they meet during home visits or through their current hospital or clinic-based medical providers.
In 2016 alone, St. Vincent de Paul filled 48,317 prescriptions valued at $6.46 million at the Liz Carter Outreach Center in the West End and the Charitable Pharmacy in their Western Hills Thrift Store. The pharmacy in the latter location just opened in 2016, giving easier access to neighbors from Cincinnati’s West Side. As noted in the Society’s annual report from last year, many patients at the Western Hills Charitable Pharmacy come from the Good Samaritan Free Health Center in Price Hill just a bus ride away.
The Charitable Pharmacy also has a characteristic that sets it apart from the Society’s other offerings, Dunn notes – one that makes the woman he met not so unusual in her initial reluctance to seek help. Even those who wouldn’t qualify or need other services have benefitted from the pharmacy.
“Of all of our services, the pharmacy is utilized by all zip codes in Hamilton County,” he says. “We have many users who are fully employed, full-time workers who just can’t afford all of their pharmaceuticals. They’re literally your neighbors.”
Barry Silver is one of the Charitable Pharmacy’s earliest customers. When Silver lost his wife, Paula, to complications from lupus, years of medical treatment and travel to other states for medical care had drained the family’s finances. Silver was forced to work three jobs to support their three children as a single father and attempt to manage a mountain of medical and other growing debt.
And Silver had significant medical issues – hypertension, heart issues, gout – all of which required medication for him to maintain some degree of health. Unable to afford his medication regimen, Silver started going without certain prescriptions or rotating the days in which he would take his pills to avoid frequent refills.
A pharmacist who noted his plight suggested he call St. Vincent de Paul.
“It was such a breath of fresh air,” Silver says about the process about 10 years ago. “You bring them proof of your income, proof of your bills and what you have in the bank. Every six months they recertify (your finances), and they have been helping me with my lifesaving medication ever since. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”
Silver’s description is part of the overall experience of receiving service from the pharmacy, Dunn says. Dispensing medication is the bulk of what takes place there, but the pharmacy also aims to protect a neighbor’s overall health and well-being by initiating full health evaluations and medical screenings.
Like many neighbors, Silver also received other services from St. Vincent de Paul, such as help with utilities and new eyeglasses. The cost of 17 years of medical care for Paula’s systematic lupus and monthly trips to Baltimore for treatment near the end of her life overwhelmed the family, and when Paula died at 48, Silver was forced to declare bankruptcy – something he’d experience three different times.
The choices Silver had to make during that period and beyond were familiar to Dunn.
“Most of the folks the pharmacy helps have to make a lot of difficult decisions,” Dunn says. “Do I pay my rent this month? Or my utilities? How do I put food on the table? Pay for heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer? And sometimes, unfortunately, those decisions are made at the expense of their medication needs.”
One neighbor, Kim, needed an inhaler for her asthma that cost $385 each month – and that was just one of the multiple prescriptions she had to fill regularly. Combine pharmaceutical costs with other financial needs, and it’s easy to see why neighbors who use the Charitable Pharmacy aren’t exaggerating when they call it live-saving. Thanks to the pharmacy, they no longer have to worry about dodging eviction for nonpayment of rent because they chose their medication costs that month, or figure out how to survive without their medication because they needed a roof over their heads.
Although St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic organization, the Society places no restrictions on who they will help, seeing all as neighbors regardless of age, race, ethnicity, national origin or other status. Silver is an Orthodox Jewish man, and noted how his religion or beliefs have never been an issue by any volunteer or employee who provided assistance.
Silver’s story also illustrates how poverty and need crosses all income and educational boundaries. Silver has a master’s degree in psychiatric social work and spent close to 20 years working on the mobile crisis team at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in psychiatric emergency services. More than many, Silver understands the mental damage caused by continual poverty and financial strain, so when he too faced a financial crisis after losing his wife, he often struggled with depression and a sense of hopelessness.
It’s a cycle he’s lived with the past 40 years – when his wife first became ill. He’s moved from being a married father of young children to a widowed father of teenagers to a proud grandfather, but will likely rely on assistance from multiple social service agencies for his basic needs for the rest of his life.
But through the worst of it, St. Vincent de Paul was a constant presence providing help, often in ways he never expected – like the Charitable Pharmacy.
“The original pharmacy giving me St. Vincent de Paul’s number was a game changer in my life,” Silver says. “I was able to get the care, the medicine – everything I needed in terms of medication. They didn’t just stop there: there were glasses and there were utility bills and other things here and there sometimes when I just didn’t have the money.
“And they were there – St. Vincent de Paul.”
For more information, call 513.562.8841, Ext. 228 or Ext. 230, or visit www.svdpcincinnati.org.