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Nonprofit pharmacy is "swamped' by callers

When retired pharmacist Michael Casale learned Saturday that a local social service agency had opened a nonprofit pharmacy for seniors, he decided to volunteer.

Casale, 74, called the new Neighborly Pharmacy Monday to learn more.

And he wasn't the only one.

After opening Jan. 5, the pharmacy got off to a slow start, with about eight people a day coming in. But demand for Neighborly's discount drugs ratcheted up after a front-page story in Saturday's Times.

About 30 seniors left messages Monday asking to transfer their prescriptions from chain retailers to Neighborly. Another 50 came to the store asking for the same thing or to fill prescriptions Monday.

Tuesday was similar. The pharmacy had served 50 people by 3 p.m. Pharmacist Gaston Bedard estimated the pharmacy received hundreds of calls.

"He is swamped," said Debra Shade, president and chief executive officer of Neighborly Care Network, the nonprofit agency that runs the pharmacy. "He can't stay off the phone. We have four lines and I can't get in."

Bill and Betty Hoth of Palm Harbor came into the pharmacy about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Hoth, 84, fished his wife's prescription for an eye drug out of his wallet and showed it to Bedard.

The drug cost her $63, and she agreed to have it delivered to her house as part of the pharmacy's free delivery program. It was a new prescription and she didn't know how much it would cost to fill it elsewhere, nor was she willing to find out.

"I didn't really think there was such an outfit as this," said Bill Hoth, who is taking a drug for prostate cancer that he has been paying about $400 for at Walgreens. At Neighborly, it costs about $350, he said. "This is the most wonderful thing that has happened."

Seniors in Pasco County want the service, too, Shade said. That has prompted her to consider accepting faxed orders. Neighborly might fill the orders by mail or make a weekly delivery to a central Pasco County location, she said.

The pharmacy needs Casale and other volunteers who can help seniors apply to drugmakers for free or low-priced prescription drugs sometimes made available to certain patients, she said.

With its one pharmacist and one pharmacy technician, Neighborly can fill 150 to 175 prescriptions per day, she said.

With two pharmacists, Neighborly could fill twice as many, she said. Casale, a Clearwater resident who pays $275 per month to supplement his Medicare with a plan that helps him pay for drugs, retired from his pharmacy in 1990.

But he's willing to do what it takes to get up to speed and volunteer at the pharmacy once or twice a week.

"I'm a little rusty on it," Casale said. "I'm going to have to get back out there and learn the drugs."

Neighborly is also looking for ways to drop its prices even more. State Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, have proposed the Legislature approve a $300,000 grant for Neighborly.

The pharmacy is also trying to join a collective of nonprofit organizations that bargains with drugmakers for cheaper prices.

Shade wants the state to assist nonprofit pharmacies by helping them form similar bargaining collectives. Since August, she has been exchanging e-mails with Gov. Jeb Bush about her plans.

He's interested.

"The governor supports anything that uses the market to drive down costs in health care," said Jacob DiPietro, a spokesman for the governor's office. "We have nonprofit hospitals, nonprofit clinics. This is a logical next step."

Neither the governor nor any Pinellas delegate to the Legislature has proposed any specific policies to help Neighborly or to promote nonprofit pharmacies. But Bilirakis would be willing to, said Chandy Kime, his legislative aide.

"At this stage, we just want to get it going to see that it's working," Kime said. "If it's successful, we would definitely be interested in implementing some sort of policy change."

Shade has also contacted U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, for advice about expanding Neighborly into Pasco County.

While not making any promises, Brown-Waite said Tuesday she's open to discussion.

"Anything to lower the health care costs of my constituency is a very admirable goal," Brown-Waite said.

To learn more

Neighborly Pharmacy

1015 Omaha Circle, Palm Harbor

(727) 289-5030

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

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