In the Wake of Katrina, Chain Pharmaciesand Drug Companies Join Forces

OCTOBER 01, 2005
Eileen Koutnik-Fotopoulos

The pharmaceutical industry is a competitive business. Yet, competition was put aside leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Pharmacy retailers and drug manufacturers joined forces to help those in need. Relief efforts included monetary contributions, necessary medications, and supplies to help survivors get through one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

The relief efforts have been no easy task. Tens of thousand of hurricane survivors had to be evacuated to shelters without basic necessities. The pharmacy industry saw a need and continues to do everything possible to ensure that individuals are getting their medications. Members of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores took swift action.

Calling it a "time of immense participation with a lot of pharmacies working together," Registered Pharmacist Bob DuFour, director of Pharmacy, Professional Services, and Government Relations at Wal-Mart, has been commended for his leadership. With the eye of the storm heading straight for New Orleans, La, Wal-Mart pharmacists, as well as other retail pharmacists, worked around the clock filling prescriptions for residents evacuating the city. It was only the beginning of the efforts.

What came next was stepping up the magnitude of help for individuals who did not have enough medication and for hospitals running short of supplies. Many of the retail pharmacies along the Gulf Coast were under water or completely destroyed. DuFour knew that Wal-Mart alone could not handle the demands from hospitals, local and state organizations, state and local Red Cross, and other organizations. He organized a network of retailers (eg, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens) to develop organized ways to handle responsibilities and get medications to individuals across the country.

DuFour was able to get the Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi pharmacy state boards to allow pharmacists to dispense medications deemed necessary without a physician's orders. "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.

Amanda Jenkins, PharmD, who works at the Wal-Mart in Monroe, La, coordinated with Dr. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the University of Louisiana at Monroe College of Pharmacy, and pharmacy students. The group went to the Monroe Civic Center to assess the needs of evacuees. The school called the prescriptions in to Dr. Jenkins, according to DuFour.

"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, like other retailers, is opening more stores every day in the affected areas. As of press time, 40 Rite Aid volunteers had gone to those areas to help reopen Rite Aid stores and fill prescriptions. The retailer also set up 3 temporary mobile pharmacies to fill the need for prescription and pharmacy services. The sites included Mobile, Ala; D'Iberville, Miss; and Waveland, Miss. 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.

CVs' 2 satellite pharmacy operations at the Astrodome in Houston, Tex, filled 20,000 prescriptions for 7000 individuals taking refuge. Of the prescriptions needed, 90% were filled within the first 72 hours of the operation. The retailer recently completed its mobile pharmacy operations at the Houston Astrodome because all of the evacuees were moved to other facilities. The retailer also set up 2 other mobile pharmacies in the state: at the Convention Center in Austin and at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio.

"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. We are deeply concerned for our customers and employees, and we will keep on doing everything we can to assist in the recovery effort," said Mike DeAngelis, CVS spokesman.

Walgreens has filled >300,000 prescriptions for hurricane evacuees in all 45 states where the retailer operates. Because many evacuees are being relocated to other parts of states, Walgreens pharmacies have been filling 2 and 3 times their regular volume of prescriptions.

To meet the increased demand, the retailer has been using technology to fill prescriptions faster. The company received special permission from pharmacy state boards in affected areas—including Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—to use the new function of its InterCom Plus computer system on an emergency basis. The advanced system had been tested only in some Florida markets beginning in early 2005. The company had introduced the computer pharmacy system in 1997.

"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.

Here is how the system works. If a particular pharmacy is busy, a technician scans a handwritten 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. We do plan to launch the new function in all our stores but do not know when." Polzin added.

Retailers and hospitals would not have been able to accomplish everything they have done without the help of various drug manufacturers. Aside from monetary contributions, the companies provided free medications to hurricane survivors and replaced medications donated to shelters and health care facilities.

Novo Nordisk immediately responded with diabetes care. In addition to its $1 million aid donation, the company is providing insulin products and advanced delivery devices to help relief efforts. The health care company has designated 50% of the monetary donation to provide immediate care for patients with diabetes. The remainder of the funds will be donated to the Red Cross toward its general relief efforts.

Novo Nordisk will provide its insulin products and delivery devices, including prefilled insulin pens that can be used for a short time without refrigeration. Because insulin should be stored in a cold place before being administered to patients, the company has a system in place to provide clinics and shelters with refrigerators and generators.

On September 1, 2005, Eli Lilly and Co loaded its corporate jet with 1600 lb of products, from first aid supplies to medications, for Hancock Medical Center in Bay Saint Louis, Miss, said company spokesman Edward Sagebiel. The company is shipping products to 40 centers in 10 different states. Lilly also is working with retailers to dispense free medications to individuals in need. "We are looking at its effect on a weekly basis to determine how long it will continue," he said.

He said that immediately following the storm "there was an acute need for insulin products." The company has donated $1 million in insulin for those in need in the affected areas. All product donations are being coordinated through Heart to Heart and the Red Cross.

Another area that requires attention is the mental health of survivors. "What we are seeing now is a need for mental health 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.

"What has been unique from a broader corporate standpoint is how corporations are working together," observed Sagebiel. "[Lilly] feels privileged to have contributed."

AstraZeneca also is putting some of its efforts into the mental health area. The company is supporting the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (NCCBH) Project Helping Hands. The project is an emergency psychiatric assistance program to aid community mental health centers in states across the country that are reaching out to displaced and relocated individuals with serious mental illness. NCCBH has centers in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, Utah, Arizona, and Texas.

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

The company also announced that it will provide up to $5 million in free medication to Hurricane Katrina survivors.

On an emergency supply, Pfizer made its medications available to individuals who lost access to their Pfizer medications. The emergency basis ended on September 30, 2005. The company also joined efforts with hospitals and medical institutions in Texas and Louisiana to make sure that no one goes without medication. In conjunction with donating medicines, the company will replenish Pfizer products for free.

"We at Pfizer are committed to helping improve people's lives. 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.

"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," added Taylor.