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Seniors agency starts pills on wheels service

Since it started filling prescriptions three weeks ago, the Neighborly Pharmacy hasn't made a dime. In fact, the tiny store is losing money.

And that's just fine.

This pharmacy is not meant to make money, but to save it for Pinellas County seniors struggling to afford pricey prescription drugs.

It's a nonprofit, state-registered pharmacy that has pledged to sell drugs at cost to members of the 60-plus set who don't have prescription insurance coverage and must pay for meds out of pocket.

It's a simple concept. The store is an arm of the nonprofit Neighborly Care Network, which runs the Meals on Wheels program. It sells American brand-name and generic drugs for the manufacturers' wholesale price, plus a few cents to cover the electric bill. The store even makes free deliveries to seniors in Pinellas County.

Neighborly's phone has rung almost constantly since the store opened on Jan. 5. Pharmacist Gaston Bedard and technician Carla Hoffman have filled prescriptions for two dozen new clients a week.

"They're thinking it's too good to be true," said Hoffman of Palm Harbor.

But the promise of no markups is true.

Like about 10-million Americans on Medicare, Connie Edwards, 62, doesn't have health insurance that pays for prescriptions. So the Tarpon Springs snowbird from West Virginia regularly shops to find the lowest price for her medication.

Last week she called Neighborly and found she could save $23 on a refill for Vioxx, a painkiller she takes to ease arthritis.

Virginia March, 75, uses Advair, an inhaler that treats her asthma. With no prescription coverage, one inhaler costs her $138 at the drugstore around the corner from her Palm Harbor home. At Neighborly it's $10 less.

"Ten dollars is as good to me as it is to them," she said. "I'll take it."

A comparison of nine popular drugs showed that Neighborly's prices are competitive with other local chain stores, particularly for generic drugs. But the chains can beat Neighborly on some medications. Drugs imported from Canada still tend to be less expensive.

The pharmaceutical industry makes it almost impossible for a small pharmacy like Neighborly to sell drugs at dramatically lower prices than for-profit outfits, said Dr. Jay Wolfson, professor of public health and medicine at University of South Florida. Large chains can buy drugs in bulk at a lower price.

But he applauds the organization's efforts.

"It's an innovative and interesting approach to a very difficult problem," he said. "It's not complete, and it's not perfect, but it offers benefits that have measurable value to the community."

The nonprofit pharmacy was the brainchild of Debra Shade, president and CEO of Neighborly Care Network, a social service organization that serves Pinellas and Manatee counties. The agency used to be known as Neighborly Senior Services.

Shade's case workers were reporting that elderly clients felt they couldn't afford all their prescriptions. To cut costs, some would take a medication every other day or cut pills in half.

"They were picking and choosing how much pain they could live with," Shade said.

In April 2003, Shade envisioned a pharmacy that would sell drugs at cost. No markup, no extra fees, nothing beyond the manufacturer's selling price.

She brought in pharmacist Gaston Bedard, with whom she had worked in South Florida, and set up shop in a storefront that Neighborly already owned near historic downtown Palm Harbor.

Inside, the store looks like any small independent pharmacy: a peach marbleized counter, with a few over-the-counter products on a shelf and a cash register. Bedard and technician Hoffman dispense drugs from behind the counter.

Neighborly's overhead, including salaries for the pharmacist, technician and a delivery driver, are expected to cost Neighborly Network $200,000 a year, Shade said, and the agency has committed to fund the project for at least three years.

With government officials warning against buying Canadian drugs, Bedard says his shop can offer brand-name drugs at prices that are often a few dollars less than the chain pharmacies, and the savings go even deeper on generic drugs.

Bedard insists that his aim is not to compete with chain drugstores, because his store only serves clients who lack prescription coverage. He hopes that the lower prices will convince under-insured seniors to get all their prescriptions from Neighborly.

"When they have to make a choice between food and drugs, they cheat a little bit. And that's going to shorten their quality of life," said Bedard, 52, who moved from Boca Raton to Palm Harbor for this project. The Quebec City native finished pharmacy school in 1975, and most recently was practicing clinical pharmacology at a hospital.

Once the pharmacy is running smoothly, Bedard wants to help seniors sign up for drug company programs that offer free or deeply discounted brand-name drugs to seniors who qualify based on income.

For now, though, Bedard just wants to get the word out about the store.

"We're here to trying to save the senior citizens of this county some money," Bedard said. "That's all."

How will it work?

Neighborly Pharmacy accepts no private insurance. It serves customers aged 60 and older who lack insurance coverage for prescription drugs or who have insurance but whose co-payments for specific drugs are more than the drug costs. Customers can pay with cash, check or credit card. The pharmacy accepts Medicaid.

The pharmacy sells brand-name and generic drugs at cost, plus a few cents per prescription to cover expenses.

Customers can bring prescriptions to the pharmacy at 1015 Omaha Circle in Palm Harbor, doctors can call in prescriptions, or prescriptions from other drugstores can be transferred by phone.

Neighborly Pharmacy will deliver prescriptions free to seniors in Pinellas County.

To learn more

Neighborly Pharmacy

1015 Omaha Circle, Palm Harbor

(727) 289-5030

Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Comparison shopping

Here's what the new non-profit Neighborly Pharmacy and others charge for a 30-pill supply of some popular medications.

Neighborly CVS CVS with

Drug Purpose Pharmacy store savings card+

Fosamax Prevents, treats $66 $74.99 $70.83

10 mg osteoporosis

Lipitor Lowers cholesterol $92 $106.99 $97.60

20 mg

Vioxx Painkiller $75 $83.99 $79.79

25 mg

Enalapril Treats high blood $5 $19.09 $18.14

10 mg pressure

Plavix Reduces risk of $111 $129.99 $112.55

75 mg heart attack

Metformin Treats type 2 $5 $19.29 $17.50

HCL 500 mg diabetes

Eckerd Eckerd Eckerd with Walgreens

Drug online store senior card+++ online

Fosamax $73.19 $81.99 $73.79 $68.99

10 mg

Lipitor $98.11 $110.49 $99.44 $95.99

20 mg

Vioxx $81.15 $98.89 $89 $91.99

25 mg

Enalapril $8.80 $26.59 $23.93 $16.00++

10 mg

Plavix $123.98 $141.59 $127.43 $114.99

75 mg

Metformin $15.70 $21.49 $19.34 $18.00++

HCL 500 mg

CVS Canadian Drug

Drug online Company

Fosamax $73.59 $62.24

10 mg

Lipitor $110.99 $62.63++

20 mg

Vioxx $95.59 $43.27

25 mg

Enalapril $19.79 $37.88

10 mg

Plavix $122.99 $80.36++++

75 mg

Metformin $21.69 $6.30++

HCL 500 mg

+ These prices are only available with $6.50 a month discount card program. ++ Price for 30-pill supply calculated from a larger supply, typically less expensive because there is only one dispensing fee applied. +++ Eckerd offers seniors without prescription insurance coverage a 10 percent discount. ++++ Price for 30-pill supply calculated from 28-pill supply. Sources: Neighborly Pharmacy, CVS Pharmacy, www.walgreens.com, www.canadiandrugcompany.com

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