When the director of St. Vincent de Paul’s pharmacy for people in need arrived to open the doors Friday morning, 10 people were already waiting in line.
An hour later, three pharmacists — including volunteers who are 83 and 91 years old — continued to click pills into bottles while 25 people waited for medication.
With senior citizens “reaching their Medicare gaps” at this time of year, activity is rising at the pharmacy, which provides free medication for those in need, said Kay Kyes, director of the charity’s pharmacy.
The number of people who can’t afford vital medication has increased in the past few years because of the economic downturn, she said.
Demand on the pharmacy gradually grows even higher in the second half of the year as Medicare patients reach the maximum of their regular coverage and don’t qualify for catastrophic coverage, she said.
The pharmacy served nearly 8,000 people from a 12-parish area last year, according to officials from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Carla Parker, of Reserve, waited for nine medications Friday morning.
She estimated the retail cost of her medicines at $500 a month, which she said she can’t afford because major surgery left her unable to continue her job as a caregiver, a profession in which she worked for 35 years.
Society officials said that last year the pharmacy dispensed about $2.2 million worth of medication.
It relies heavily on leftover medicine donated by nursing homes, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, the public and area coroners.
Donating medicine to help save people’s lives “is a lot better than destroying it,” said Dr. Ron Coe, the Livingston Parish Coroner.
State law protects people from liability if they donate medicines to a charitable pharmacy, the coroner said.
Coe asks the relatives of people who die in Livingston Parish to turn over the drugs of the deceased to the Coroner’s Office.
Together with law enforcement authorities, officials from the coroner’s office destroy the narcotics and save the other medications for St. Vincent de Paul’s pharmacy, Coe said.
The society’s pharmacists cull outdated or otherwise unusable drugs and save those that can be re-prescribed to patients, he said.
On Friday, the staff pharmacist and two volunteer pharmacists — Joe Cronan, 83, and Joaquin Velasquez, 91 — dispensed the medicines.
“I do it for God and to help these people,” Cronan said.
“We’re a pharmacy of last resort, providing help to people who have nowhere else to turn,” said Michael Acaldo, president and CEO of the St. Vincent de Paul charitable operation in Baton Rouge.
“It’s amazing how many of our community go without medicine,” he said. “These are people who desperately need it.”
To get free medication from the charity’s pharmacy, people must show they can’t afford medicine, he said, adding that the pharmacy’s patients have to go through a screening process in which their proof of identity, bills and income are scrutinized, Acaldo said.
Demand has been up for the past three years because a lot of people have lost their jobs, he said.
A lot of the medications these people receive are for diabetes, heart conditions, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, he said.
Sometimes people come straight from an emergency room where they had to be treated because they weren’t able to obtain their medication, Acaldo said.
“Not only does the pharmacy save lives, it improves quality of life,” he said.
Demand is particularly high because of the economy, Acaldo said.
The pharmacy opened in 1995 in a small area of the charity’s dining room.
In 2003, the society opened a separate 2,000-square-foot pharmacy at 1647 Convention St.
Since then it has expanded that facility to two stories, which has allowed the pharmacy to accept and store large quantities of medication when donated medicine has been available.
The charity accepts medicines from the public but doesn’t take narcotics or other controlled dangerous substances, Acaldo said.