Feb 5, 2008

Gift of life killed: State orders doctor to stop giving unused drugs to poor

HOWELL – Some people consider it a crime to throw away perfectly good prescription drugs that can cost as much $200 and that can be used to save someone who can’t afford their own drugs. Howell physician Louis "Pat" May is one of those people.

But the semiretired general practitioner, who is 85, found out recently he might be committing a crime. He was visited by a supervisor with the Michigan Department of Community Health after it was discovered he was illegally recycling unused drugs to his low-income patients.

“Doc” May, as he is affectionately known around the city where he has been practicing medicine for almost 60 years, began advertising in a local newspaper last month seeking donations of used medical equipment and unused drugs. And that apparently brought the long arm of the law to his office door.

May has agreed to stop accepting drugs; he will continue to accept medical equipment. He is, however, disappointed at not being able to give the drugs to his patients. May sees patients two hours a day for a small office-visit fee, and for two hours each Sunday morning he sees patients for free. Most of his patients do not have health insurance so he charges what they can afford.

“I would prefer not to deal with insurance companies anyway,” he said. “We see a lot of people with no insurance, and we can vary the price for them.”

Although May has only sought recycled medical supplies for less than a month, he has gotten a great response. He said a lot of the giving has been from people who lost loved ones and no longer need the supplies. “I personally think that is part of the grieving process,” he said. “It’s one of the perceptions for grief.”

May is not happy with the ban and the control the state has on physicians, and he hopes the law can be changed. He said the price of some prescription drugs is outrageous and he feels pharmacists have surpassed medical doctors in importance and freedom.

“In the state of Michigan they are trying to control everything from aspirin to Alka-Seltzer,” he said.

But recycling drugs in Michigan is not unprecedented. The Cancer Drug Repository Program allows unopened drugs to be donated to a pharmacy, hospital, nonprofit clinic or health-care professional that elects to participate in the program.

There is a bill in the Michigan House of Representative that would allow all drugs except narcotics to be donated for indigent patients. House Bill 4897 was introduced by Rep. Lisa Wojno, D-Warren, last June but it’s stalled in the House Health Policy Committee.

News of May’s troubles reached all the way to Oklahoma, where retired physician Gerald Gustafson of the Tulsa County Medical Society heard about it. He helped put that state’s drug recycling statute in place, and he wrote May to urge him to try and find a legislative fix.

The Oklahoma program goes much further than Michigan’s proposed law. It allows the transfer of opened prescription drugs from nursing homes to the Tulsa County Pharmacy for distribution to low-income patients, with the exception of controlled substances.

Gustafson said the program has won national awards and has lowered the cost of medication for indigents in Tulsa County. It has also removed pollutants from the sewer system, lessened labor at nursing homes and relieved family, friends and nonprofit agencies from paying for the medications, allowing their funds to be applied elsewhere. Since the program began in 2005 it has filled prescriptions for indigent patients worth more than $3.5 million.

“In Tulsa, charity clinics accept bottles of prescription medications that have been opened, but not liquids or controlled drugs,” Gustafson said in a letter to May. “My gosh, if you are dying of pneumonia and need some antibiotic and no one will help, is death of an indigent more important that being perfect in the eyes of a regulator?”

Gustafson said when the program was under consideration there were fears of liability problems for pharmaceutical companies, nursing homes, county government and doctors, but that has never been a problem.

“Critics can say how do you know someone didn’t lick every single pill or inject LSD in the pills,” he said. “I don’t know where they get this stuff.”

California adopted a program like Oklahoma’s in 2005, and other states are considering adopting a drug recycling program or have already done it.

May said he expects a visit from the state regulator in another month and he has no intention of losing his medical license. The Howell icon, who recently had a city park named after him, has enjoyed his image as a country doctor since the day he received his medical degree from the University of Georgia in 1947.

He also operates a greenhouse and helped create the famed Howell Honeyrock melon on his farm that is the basis for the annual summer Howell Melon Festival, which he helped start. He is a proponent of natural cures, as well, and even sells his own brand: Doc May’s Soy Sense.

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