Russell “Rusty” Curington: The Pharmacy Director Trying to Lose Patients
Russell “Rusty” Curington was a 16-year-old Walgreens pharmacy cashier when he turned away his first customer without the prescription drugs they came in for. “I had so many people say, ‘I can’t pay for that,’” he said, remembering what it was like to ring up patients’ drugs. “I had no resources to help them.”
Things are different now: After Curington graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a doctorate in pharmacy, he rose the ranks at The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy in Southwest Ohio, where he now serves as director of two locations, with a third underway.
It’s more than a retail pharmacy without cash registers: Neighbors in need who are below the federal poverty level don’t automatically qualify for free medication. First, they meet with a Patient Advocate, who takes their vitals, screens for food insecurity, and provides financial counseling. “There are people who skip doses of blood pressure medications—which can be very dangerous—to stretch a month’s supply so they can afford to fix their car or feed their children,” Curington says. “When a person gets a diagnosis, is prescribed a medication, and ultimately can’t take care of themselves because they can’t afford their medication—that’s not healthcare.”
Patient Advocates also check their patients’ blood pressure or blood sugar, and may refer them to an onsite nurse practitioner to who prescribes both prescription and over-the-counter drugs that can be filled at the Charitable Pharmacy for free. When picking up prescriptions, neighbors can swing by the free food pantry for groceries or attend a healthy cooking class. “The goal is for people to graduate from our program,” Curington says of the Charity Pharmacy’s mission to treat patients holistically and equip them with the skills they need to regain their health and ability to support themselves.
Each month, Curington’s facilities provide medications for about 700 patients, which include neighbors battling generational poverty, undocumented immigrants, and surprisingly, people who are covered by Medicaid, but still unable to afford the high cost of certain drugs, like insulin, inhalers, or blood pressure medication.
“There are people who die because they can’t access the medications they need—including people who have insurance and should have access, but their copays are too high to meet their needs, plus pay their rent and feed their families,” Curington says. “And it’s not a supply problem—it’s an access problem.”
Because the Charitable Pharmacy has no federal or state funding, it relies largely on free labor from volunteer pharmacists and interns and acquires drugs via donation—a process that’s legally trickier than it might seem, since it’s illegal for individuals to donate prescription medications. “Once a patient takes a drug home, we can’t touch it,” Curington says of this challenging nuance in the drug donation—it’s why so many perfectly good drugs go to waste.
In 2002, Ohio became the first state to pass a repository law, which made it legal for healthcare providers to donate unused prescription drugs.
As such, the Charitable Pharmacy collects drug samples nearing expiration from doctors’ offices and manufacturers, as well as short-dated, unused prescriptions from assisted living and other medical facilities. When they can’t source a drug via donation, they use the funding they receive from Hamilton County or the profits from their eight thrift stores to purchase medication from wholesalers.
“We’re an open book,” Curington says of his transparency. “I want people to come to us to find out how to open their own charitable pharmacy.”
After all, the healthcare advocate takes great issue with how for-profit pharmacies are run: “Independent pharmacy owners might have a customer who comes in every month to buy 10 different drugs—that’s a good customer. If they had a heart attack, they would become a better customer,” he notes with an tinge of disgust. “A pharmacist’s job should be to help people get off their medications. I saw a way to do pharmacy where I’m not paid for how many drugs I sell, but for how healthy my patients are.”
Part of Curington’s motivation stems from personal experience below the poverty level. After college, when he taught junior high school at a small private Christian school, his pride held him back from applying for Medicare until his pregnant wife encountered complications while pregnant with their first child.
It was through talking his students into following their dreams that he realized his own: He went back to school at the University of Cincinnati to become a pharmacist.
Now, he has 60 pharmacy students shadow him every year. “I teach them that pharmacists shouldn’t be reimbursed for how many prescriptions they sell, but how many people they get off medication.”
Curington’s drive to do good motivated him through 2020, when Covid-19 threw the organization for a loop. In March of 2020, they shut their building and moved the pharmacy and its services to the street, offering curbside pickup, telehealth clinical services, and eventually, drive-through vaccines. “We knew we were risking something to come to work every day, but we were people’s last resort—their safety net. So we didn’t miss a minute,” he says with pride.
“The very first week I volunteered at the Charity Pharmacy, I heard someone say, ‘You saved my life,’” Curington remembers. “Now I hear it so often I take it for granted—there are just so many people who need help.”
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