OCTOBER 01, 2005
Eileen Koutnik-Fotopoulos

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, pharmacy retailers and drug manufacturers continue to help individuals affected by the devastation. Members of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores have worked tirelessly to ensure that hurricane survivors have basic necessities, including medications and health care supplies. In addition to supplies, organizations and drug companies have donated tens of millions of dollars to the relief effort.

Calling it a "time of immense participation with a lot of pharmacists working together," Bob DuFour, RPh, director of Pharmacy, Professional Services & Government Relations at Wal-Mart, got the ball rolling as weather forecasters predicted a Category 5 storm for New Orleans, La. Wal-Mart pharmacists, like many other retail pharmacists, worked around the clock filling prescriptions for residents evacuating the city.

The job was not done after residents left the affected areas. The next problem to deal with was how to help individuals get their medications in towns where pharmacies were no longer operational and hospitals were running short of supplies. DuFour knew that Wal-Mart alone could not handle the flood of requests from hospitals, local and state organizations, state and national Red Cross, and other organizations asking for supplies. He went to work putting together a network of retailers (eg, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens) to get medications to those in need. "We set up conference calls with retailers to coordinate efforts for all shelters. The effort included Wal-Mart and other retailers adopting a shelter and helping to determine [people's] medication needs and making sure they got their medicine," he said. Part of the effort involved mobile pharmacies.

"The pharmacist response was unbelievable," DuFour said. "They are the real heroes, staying late at the pharmacy to make sure people had their medicines. We coordinated the efforts and came up with the ideas. They [the pharmacists] are the ones who executed it," he said.

Rite Aid has been sending product donations at the request of the Red Cross. "We are trying to work with every request that comes in," said Jody Cook, Rite Aid spokeswoman. The retailer also set up temporary mobile pharmacies in affected areas in need of prescription and pharmacy services. In addition, Rite Aid volunteers went down to those areas to help reopen Rite Aid stores and fill prescriptions.

CVS set up satellite pharmacy operations for evacuees in Texas. Mobile pharmacy units were set up at the Astrodome in Houston, the Convention Center in Austin, and Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. The retailer recently completed its emergency pharmacy operations at the Houston Astrodome. All of the evacuees have been relocated to other facilities. The pharmacy filled >20,000 prescriptions for 7000 individuals staying in the shelter.

"All of our industry peers, along with state and local agencies, are cooperating with one another to make sure medicines are getting to patients who need them and not duplicating services," according to Mike DeAngelis, CVS spokesman.

Walgreens deployed a new function in its InterCom Plus computer system to help fill prescriptions faster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The newest function of the company's pharmacy computer system had been tested only in some Florida markets beginning in early 2005.

"After the hurricane hit, we saw how busy our stores in the Gulf Coast were, and we saw an opportunity," said Michael Polzin, spokesman for Walgreens. The company got special permission from pharmacy state boards in affected areas—including Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—to use the system on an emergency basis.

If a particular pharmacy is busy, a technician scans the prescription and then electronically sends it to a less busy Walgreens pharmacy. The information is entered into the patient's electronic record, and a pharmacist checks to make sure that the patient will not have any adverse reaction to any medication. The system then sends the prescription back to the original store, where it is filled.

"This system was not designed for the aftermath of a hurricane. However, we have gotten a lot of feedback from our pharmacists about how it helped. We have no timetable on how long we will use it on an emergency basis," Polzin added.

Drug manufacturers were a big factor in the relief efforts. Various drug companies not only contributed monetary donations, but also sent free medications to hurricane survivors and replaced medications donated to shelters.

AstraZeneca recently announced that it will provide up to $5 million in free medicine to Hurricane Katrina survivors. The company also will support the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (NCCBH) "Project Helping Hands." The project is an emergency psychiatric assistance program to help community mental health centers in states across the country that are reaching out to displaced and relocated individuals with serious mental illness.

"Our partnership with NCCBH is a natural fit for us because mental health support and treatment are a core piece of our company focus," said Carla Burigatto, director of media relations for the company. "AstraZeneca is committed, just like the broader health community, to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina. We are watching the situation unfold each day."

Eli Lilly and Co is currently shipping products directly to 40 centers in 10 different states. On September 1, 2005, Lilly sent the corporate jet loaded with 1600 lb of products, from first aid supplies to medications, to Hancock Medical Center in Bay Saint Louis, Miss, according to company spokesman Edward Sagebiel.

The company also has entered into agreements with various retailers to dispense free medications to hurricane survivors. "We are looking at its effect on a weekly basis to determine how long it will continue," he said.

Sagebiel said that immediately following the storm "there was an acute need for insulin products." Therefore, the company has donated $1 million in insulin products. He added that mental health issues are now coming to the forefront. "What we are seeing now is a need for mental treatment and more maintenance medications for patients taking mental health medicines." As a result, the company has donated mental health treatment medications to various hospitals, health care facilities, and clinics in the affected areas.

Pfizer offered individuals who lost access to their Pfizer medications an emergency supply of their medication. The emergency need ended on September 30, 2005. "Pfizer has a long tradition of helping those in need. When disaster strikes, we have been there early and responding," said Darla Taylor, company spokeswoman.

The company also partnered with hospitals and medical institutions in Texas and Louisiana. In addition to donating medicines, the company will replenish Pfizer products at no charge.

"When you look at the magnitude of what happened and the response, it is a tremendous coordination of effort by relief organizations to help take care of people's immediate needs," Taylor said.

Eileen Koutnik-Fotopoulos: Staff Writer, Pharmacy Times

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