The nonprofit will use a new building layout to connect underserved Franklin County residents with their medications and other health care services.

Since its inception 10 years ago, the Charitable Pharmacy of Central Ohio has adhered to its mission of providing affordable pharmacy services to Franklin’s County’s most vulnerable citizens. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit home, the agency had to upend its business model in support of that mission.

The pharmacy provider has seen surging demand and challenging restrictions. “We did things quickly, and I felt like we were innovating in our space, making really positive changes and continuing to work the problem,” says Executive Director Jennifer Seifert.

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Charitable Pharmacy serves low-income, uninsured and underinsured Franklin County residents who likely would go without prescription medications because they can’t afford them; the average patient is 60 years old and takes eight medications. The pharmacy receives medicine from wholesalers, pharmaceutical and charitable distributors, and in 10 years has filled more than 500,000 prescriptions with a wholesale value of almost $50 million.

In March, the pharmacy closed its doors to the public, set up curbside pickup and dispensed 60-day supplies rather than 30. The pharmacy stopped accepting new patients for about three weeks and, with support from the United Way of Central Ohio, added two staff members to meet surging volume. Between March 12 and April 12, the value of dispensed prescriptions skyrocketed to almost $2.4 million, a 330 percent increase over the same time period last year. The number of prescriptions dispensed by the pharmacy increased to 6,955 from 5,024.

Moving forward, Seifert and her team look to keep some of the new practices while remaining a community hub for the underserved and vulnerable. They hope to extend 60-day supplies, which originally required approval from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy.

Space will be reconfigured at the pharmacy housed in the Livingston United Methodist Church in downtown Columbus. “We often had a full pharmacy with up to 16 people, including volunteers, and a full waiting room serving up to 70 patients each day, so how we use our building space and time becomes really important,” Seifert says. “We are most passionate about one-on-one care … many clients come to get out of their houses. Our waiting area is very lively, and our building is very welcoming. A lot of people are lonely.”

The pharmacy plans to open a second location this year in a former market in South Linden, where it will share space with the All People’s Fresh Market, which has its main location on Parsons Avenue. “We’re really excited at the opportunity to address diet and health,” Seifert says. “People’s vulnerabilities cross over.”

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Of the current crisis, she says, “In a heartbreaking way, I think we’re going to be looking at how pandemics and public health crises affect underserved patients. We are going to examine our patient population as it relates to access and disparities in a new way that I think will add to our message and to people paying attention to our message: That everyone deserves access to their medication.”

The United Way has funded the pharmacy since its inception, providing $30,000 during the Covid-19 crisis for staffing and supplies. CEO Lisa Courtice says the pandemic has stricken many of its funded organizations. Of 89 that responded to an April 3-7 survey, within the first month of the pandemic, many had eliminated a significant part of their workforce, and more than an estimated $8 million in revenue was lost due to canceled fundraising events, among other economic impacts.

Courtice says going forward, “We will have to re-evaluate and prioritize … and basic needs will be No. 1. Providing medication to those who cannot afford it is a basic need.”

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.