Officials want closer look at unused drug program

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State officials may get more time to assess a proposed program that would donate unused prescriptions to those in need.

The Senate on Friday gave preliminary approval to S.164, a bill that suggests creation of an “unused prescription drug repository program.”

The bill has changed since its introduction last month. Rather than saying the state “shall establish” a repository, the legislation now says the Agency of Human Services “shall evaluate the feasibility of implementing” a repository.

The agency is due to report back on Dec. 1 with “an analysis of how it would work, how we could support it … and how to implement it,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison.

Ayer has expressed optimism, however, that the program eventually will work in Vermont.

“It really fits with our Vermont values of taking care of people who don’t have enough to make ends meet, and reducing, reusing and recycling,” she said.

Ayer is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which has been taking testimony on S.164. Before Friday’s vote, she described it as “a really nice bill” that could boost access to prescription drugs while also reducing waste at hospitals and nursing facilities.

“When a patient is discharged or changes drugs, those (unused) drugs in their verifiably safe containers are thrown away, and they actually have to pay to have them incinerated,” Ayer said.

Nationwide, Ayer said, an estimated $5 billion in unused prescription drugs are wasted annually.

As originally drafted, S.164 said unused drugs that were still in their original sealed packaging or in intact single-use packaging could be donated to pharmacies, hospitals or other health care facilities that elected to participate in the program.

Those donated drugs could not be resold, but rather would be donated to “Vermont residents who meet eligibility standards.” Those standards were not specified, though the bill suggested that priority be given to residents with incomes at or below 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The bills ordered the state Board of Pharmacy to work through the mechanics of the program, including procedures for accepting, storing and dispensing donated drugs.

But it became clear in recent weeks that both the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the state Department of Healthwere in favor of taking a step back from implementing the program.

Allowing the state to further analyze a drug repository “gives all of us the opportunity to examine how this would actually work,” David Englander, a senior policy and legal adviser for the Department of Health, told lawmakers in Feb. 2 testimony.

The rewritten bill that received a unanimous nod from the Senate on Friday says the Agency of Human Services will look at a variety of factors including program costs; potential funding sources; criteria for accepting and dispensing drugs; eligibility; and development of an outreach and education plan.

The agency also will examine “the potential benefits of the program to Vermont consumers, the health care system, the environment and the state.” That’s a provision that Ayer pushed for.

“I think the benefits are an important piece,” she said in a previous committee meeting. “I don’t think this is ever going to be a money-maker. But there’s a group of people, plus the environment, that could benefit from this.”

The Senate vote on S.164 came two days after Ayer’s committee OK’d S.175, another prescription-drug bill. That bill would set up a state wholesaler to import drugs from Canada, where prescriptions are cheaper than in the United States.

The future of that initiative is unclear, in part because approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Serviceswould be required.

S.175 now is being considered by the Senate Finance Committee.

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