Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Savvy People That Are Saving Prescription Drugs From Landfills and Giving Them to Needy Patients

December 16, 2014
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The Savvy People That Are Saving Prescription Drugs From Landfills and Giving Them to Needy Patients
Twenty percent of all Americans are struggling to pay their medical bills, which are now the leading cause of personal bankruptcy. Mario Tama/Getty Images
You wouldn't believe the number of pills that are trashed annually.

Most of us are aware that Americans waste a lot of food, which has spurred nonprofits like the Food Recovery Network to avert some of that loss and give it to hungry people. But you may not know that Americans also toss out an astonishing amount of perfectly good prescription drugs as well. These drugs end up in landfills, flushed down the toilet or burnt in incinerators where they can harm people or the environment, keeping them from people who could use them.

Fifty percent of the Americans that the Commonwealth Fund surveyed said that they had failed to fill a prescription ordered by their doctors because of the price of the drug, and according to the CDC, 25 percent of Americans struggle with paying their medical bills.

Which is why several crusaders are working to get unused prescription drugs into the hands of people who need them. George Wang, whose Stanford, California-based nonprofit startup Sirum recovers these drugs, calculates that $700 million worth of prescriptions could be saved each year. He talked with Marketplace about “the absurdity of the waste and how gross it is, the fact that it’s raining down on families where these drugs are being burnt. It’s insane, right?”

One of the big culprits is nursing homes. Residents use a lot of prescriptions, but regulations require these facilities to toss prescriptions instead of sharing them between patients. Larry McCarty, a medical waste hauler who works for nursing homes in California describes, “brand new packages that have never been open and still have the saran over the top of them. Whole packages, just sitting in there.”

Sirum has developed software to make it simple for nursing homes to donate leftover drugs, shipping them to pharmacies that will give them to low-income people or those who don’t have insurance.

In Oklahoma, Linda Johnston, the Tulsa County Director of Social Service, heads up a program that involves retired doctors in collecting unused drugs and delivering them to the needy, saving $16 million worth of drugs so far, and countless lives. Johnston talked with Marketplace about one young man who’d received anti-depression medication from the program. “He wanted me to know he was not going to commit suicide, because he had his medication, he could take it.”

MORE: How Much Food Could Be Rescued if College Dining Halls Saved Their Leftovers?
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