MOSES LAKE — When Becky Van Keulen's husband and high-school sweetheart Jonathan got cancer, she learned pretty quick just how expensive treating the dreaded disease really is.
“Medication costs are a huge problem. Oncology meds can cost $10,000 per dose, plus the secondary meds to treat the effects of the primary meds,” Van Keulen said. “It's one of the most expensive meds you can have.”
Van Kuelen said her husband was only 29 when he was diagnosed.
“We battled it for almost two years, and then he died,” she said.
Looking for a way to honor his memory, Van Keulen started a non-profit to “help other people going through cancer.”
“There's a lot of support for kids who have cancer, but not a lot of support for adults,” she said.
Van Keulen and her organization, Cancer Can't, raised money, more than enough, to remodel the oncology ward at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, but she found herself with some leftover funds and wondering “what can we do to help?”
That's when someone suggested helping cancer patients with their very expensive medications. Or rather, allowing pharmacies to accept unopened and unused cancer meds and give them away.
Van Keulen said her husband had a bad reaction to one of the chemotherapy treatments he had been prescribed, and couldn't take it. They wanted to return it to the pharmacy, but were told that wasn't possible. The medicine, once prescribed and doled out, had to be thrown away.
“We had $30,000 of unopened and unused meds, and we couldn't take them back,” she said.
So, Van Keulen worked to get the law changed. In 2016, a mere week before her husband Jonathan died, Washington became only the third state in the country to allow pharmacies to receive donations of unopened and unused prescription medications in order to help those who cannot afford the treatments they need or have been prescribed.
And she is now the executive director of Charitable Pharmacy, which is slowly putting together a database of donated medications and a network of pharmacies across the state that can help people who cannot afford their meds.
“We're looking at $5 billion of unexpired and unopened medications trashed or incinerated every year, and there are people who are dying who cannot afford their meds,” Van Keulen said.
Charitable Pharmacy isn't up and running yet — they are currently building up an inventory and creating a statewide database of medications, getting ready for the day they can go online and offer their services. Already, Van Keulen said they have about $500,000 in inventory that includes cancer drugs, asthma inhalers and insulin.
“We're going to slowly grow,” Van Keulen said. “If there's too much demand and not enough inventory, it will fail.”
“We suspect it will grow really fast,” she added.
So far, the only participating pharmacies are the five Owl Pharmacy locations — Cheney, Medical Lake, Lidgerwood, Fairfield and Grand Coulee — and Laketown Pharmacy in Moses Lake.
“Mark (DuVall) and I recognize prescription drug costs are a huge issue in this country,” said John Rackham, a pharmacist and along with DuVall one of the co-owners of Laketown Pharmacy.
Rackham said his pharmacy “doesn't have a ton of patients” who would benefit from the Charitable Pharmacy, but he has in the past given out $200 asthma inhalers to those in need.
There are still a lot of things to work out, Rackham said, such as the workflow, storage space (right now, all donations go to the Owl Pharmacy in Cheney), making sure the medication database functions properly, and how donating medications to patients will work with insurance.
The medicine will be free, Van Keulen said, and all patients have to do is pay for the shipping.
“This is a pilot program. We have to work out all the kinks and roll out the database,” she said. “No one's ever done this before; there's lots to investigate.”
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.