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Poor Residents Benefit From Oklahoma County's Medicine Recycling


We're going to check in now with an organization that has more than a decade's experience in recycling medicine. It's finding a use for leftover pills and other drugs. Tulsa County, Okla. was an early adopter of a technique that is now common. The head of the county health department noticed that poor people were having trouble coming up with the cash to pay for prescription medicines. They couldn't even pay at the low-cost, county-run pharmacy. The county found a source of free medicine. County social services director Linda Johnston says she uses a network of retired doctors to collect unused medicines from nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

LINDA JOHNSTON: I have 22 retired physicians who are better known as angels to me. They go out to 68 long-term care facilities, collect unused medication, transport it safely to our pharmacy, and those medications are dispensed free of charge to low-income citizens of Tulsa County.

INSKEEP: So are we talking about a lot of medication here?

JOHNSTON: Well, we began the program in September of 2004 and we have filled 172,149 prescriptions. And the value of that medication is $16.8 million. So yes, we are talking about a lot of medication.

INSKEEP: When you say $16.8 million worth of drugs, are we talking here about people who, in addition to not having very much money, may have diseases that even with their insurance might cost them many, many thousands of dollars for the drugs alone?

JOHNSTON: Absolutely. Let me tell you one quick story with regards to a medication that's a blood thinner. It's called Lovenox. And at point in time, we had shelves and shelves of it. The reason why I mention Lovenox - Lovenox is $1,000 a shot.


JOHNSTON: If you have 10 of those, you've run up a substantial cost of medication. We know from developing these relationships with the doctor's offices that commonly write prescriptions for Lovenox that they've had patients that have to stay in the hospital much, much longer, driving up the cost of that hospital stay simply because they could not get that one medication.

INSKEEP: Have you become sort of an evangelist for this technique?

JOHNSTON: Have you noticed?


JOHNSTON: I have constant contact from all over this country. I've spent hours on the phone with individuals. One of the things that most people are stunned over is how much I have spent directly on this program. I usually challenge people to guess what it has cost Tulsa County to recycle $16.8 million. You want to hazard a guess?

INSKEEP: $1 million.

JOHNSTON: Guess again.

INSKEEP: Am I too high?

JOHNSTON: I have spent less than $6,000 to recycle $16.8 dollars.

INSKEEP: That's - what is it, some plastic containers for medication and other things like that?

JOHNSTON: That's correct. We started out putting all the medications in shoeboxes. And we quickly...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

JOHNSTON: ...Ran out of shoeboxes, so we ended up having to buy some plastic containers. When you have the existing staff, you have the infrastructure in place. You have volunteers that do the transport. It's a very small expense.

INSKEEP: Other than the fact that they don't have a lot of money, do the people who use your service have very much in common?

JOHNSTON: I don't think so because we see such a diverse demographics that utilize our pharmacy. It's not unusual for an elderly person walk in with a Ziploc bag with - full of 12 medicine bottles that they need to get refilled. We see young families, we see children. Poverty is - it's pretty equal opportunity.

INSKEEP: Well, Linda Johnston, thanks very much.

JOHNSTON: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: She's the director of social services for Tulsa County, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.