Rx within reach: St. Vincent's Student Clinic helps patient access medications they need but can't afford

Apr 20, 2016, 09:23 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
The patient assistance team (left-right): Laura Muruato, Ashley Halbert, Amerisa Waters, James Truong and Erin Dinehart. Not pictured: Adriene Eastaway, Atul Gupta and Russell Purpura.
A team of student volunteers at St. Vincent’s Student-Run Free Clinic in Galveston are working to make sure patients don’t have to choose between filling their prescriptions or buying food.

With prescription drug costs higher than ever, many patients are left with few options for affordable medications. Even a $4 prescription can be too costly for many who seek care at St. Vincent’s, which is a collaborative effort between St. Vincent’s House and UTMB. The clinic provides medical care for more than 800 uninsured and underinsured people in the Galveston area each year—people who, without St. Vincent’s, would have no way to see a doctor.

“Our volunteers don’t just write a prescription and assume someone can get it,” said Amerisa Waters, a UTMB graduate student and clinic director at St. Vincent’s. “Many of our patients have no income, so four dollars is cost prohibitive. And if the most appropriate drug is brand-name only, it could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”

While the non-profit clinic has a pharmacy, not all medications are always available or in stock. That’s where patient assistance comes in. Patient assistance programs, or PAPs, are typically offered by pharmaceutical companies to provide free or low-cost prescription drugs to qualifying individuals. But it’s up the health care provider and patient to research and understand the eligibility criteria and application process.

St. Vincent’s Clinic has offered medication assistance for years, but Waters has been key in heightening awareness and educating others about the important program.

“I have a background in retail pharmacy, so helping out on the non-clinical side with patient assistance was a natural fit,” said Waters, who is a PhD student in Medical Humanities. “I worked for years as a full-time pharmacy technician, so I’m familiar with the various medications and engaging with insurance companies. Working in a pharmacy really opened my eyes to how people struggle to get medication and all the things that can prevent it from happening. So as I started at St. Vincent’s two years ago, it went from having everybody working on juggling all their roles and patient assistance, to having a more central person where this is their role.”

Amerisa Waters shows Laura Muruato how to fill out a patient assistance application.Very quickly, she found that patient assistance was more than a one-person job. The paperwork required for each application is extensive and requires constant follow-up to make sure no patient falls through the cracks.

“Each application for medication is different, but you have to show proof of income, or no income, and some require more formal documentation,” said Waters. “We have to follow up to make sure the fax was received and everything was filled out exactly right. It’s a multilayered process and we’ve worked to create educational tools for volunteers to teach them about patient assistance and develop a system to track each application.”

She’s recruited several students to help with the growth and development of the program and credits others with making the PAP what it is today. The patient assistance team includes School of Medicine students Adriene Eastaway, Erin Dinehart, James Truong, Ashley Halbert, Atul Gupta, Russell Purpura and GSBS student Laura Muruato.

Whether it’s a prescription to clear a sinus infection or a medication for managing a potentially life-threatening condition such as diabetes or heart disease, the student volunteers at St. Vincent’s Clinic are committed to helping patients access needed drugs. It’s part of their mission to provide high-quality care to the whole person, while teaching students important practices and values that will be useful throughout their careers.

“We are able to sit down with patients and take the time to listen to them, and if they have a problem like they can’t get their medications,we’ll say ‘Let’s try to figure out a way to solve that,’” said Truong, a medical student and clinic director. “That’s really powerful for the patient. They are absolutely grateful that you care so much and are willing to go the extra mile to help them. And as a student, seeing people suffer like that is not right and helping them troubleshoot and solve their issues is just awesome.”