Navigating the health care system can be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating, with or without insurance.
So the goal of Gloucester-based national nonprofit NeedyMeds Inc. is to provide a guiding hand through the puzzle of prescription costs, copays, deductibles, and the thousands of available assistance programs.
Through its website, telephone help line, and physical outreach, the organization serves as a clearinghouse that provides information on — and helps connect people with — programs across the country. Its smartphone apps and drug discount card also allow people to manage and save on their medications.
“We try to cover every single type of program we can find,” said the organization’s president and cofounder, Dr. Richard Sagall. “We’re continually adding more information. Everything we know is on the site.”
A retired physician who practiced family and occupational medicine in Bangor, Maine, for nearly 20 years, Sagall initially started the website in 1997 with social worker Libby Overly.
At first, it was dedicated solely to patient assistance programs, known in the industry as PAPs, through which pharmaceutical companies provide free or discounted medications to those who can’t afford them.
“For a long time, it was an evenings and weekends type of thing,” Sagall explained.
Until he went full time with it in 2005.
Today, it has 12 employees and a handful of volunteers, and lists about 16,000 programs (although that changes daily, Sagall said) in a variety of categories.
Serving all 50 states as well as US territories, the website (www.needymeds.org) attracts from 15,000 to 17,000 unique visitors most workdays, and its literature has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Khmer (the language of Cambodia). It’s largely funded by grants, donations, sales of its PAPTracker software for smaller medical offices, and syndication of its information.
Since its inception, NeedyMeds has collectively saved people close to $34.5 million in health care costs — or about $1.5 million a month, according to Sagall. He said managing the nonprofit is rewarding.
“One of the reasons people go into medicine is because they want to help people,” he said during a recent interview in his office in Gloucester. “I can help more people with NeedyMeds than I ever could have in private practice.”
The thousands of listings on the website include patient assistance programs; free, low-cost, and sliding-scale clinics; disease-based assistance; camps and retreats; scholarships, drug coupons, and rebates; application assistance; and government resources. Visitors typically search for help through the generic or brand-name medications they’re taking, or by their diagnosis, and can also watch various online seminars and videos.
Meanwhile, the NeedyMeds drug discount card, which is free, is accepted at 70,000 pharmacies across the country, with an average savings of about 50 percent, or $35, per prescription, according to Sagall.
There’s no registration or personal information required to get a card, and people can use it whether they have insurance or not (but it can’t be used on top of insurance — just if the insured doesn’t have enough coverage or the card offers a better price than a copay).
The NeedyMeds website allows visitors to download a copy of the card for printing; the organization will mail a plastic card to people who send a self-addressed stamped envelope, and one can also be ordered online through PayPal for a $5 donation to cover postage and handling.
“The only eligibility requirement to use the card is you have to be breathing,” Sagall said. “Our goal is to maximize savings. Nobody should pay list price for a drug.”
The nonprofit also has two smartphone apps. One has a pharmacy finder and serves as a mobile version of the card that can be scanned at the register; the second serves as an alert system, notifying users when to take their medications, and offers the latest information about a prescription drug and its interactions.
In all cases — the website, card, apps, and help line — NeedyMeds knows nothing personal about its users, Sagall said. Information related to usage statistics and money saved is compiled, but user information such as location, socioeconomic status, race, or gender is not. Ultimately, such personal information could be valuable marketing information for other entities to use or sell, he said, but that is “something we just don’t do.”
The nonprofit does forge partnerships with local communities, including Chelmsford, Dracut, Gloucester, and Lowell. In those cases, NeedyMeds can track how often the card is used by residents of the participating community.
About $450,000 has been saved by Gloucester residents who use the card, according to Elizabeth Messenger, NeedyMeds’ director of outreach. The nonprofit also set up a dedicated help line for the city.
“The discount card has made a difference in the health of many residents,” Mayor Carolyn A. Kirk said in a prepared statement.
Looking ahead, Sagall said, his goal is to add new information on more programs, such as clinical trials, and to train volunteer ambassadors, as well as expand the education of professionals and lay people. Meanwhile, NeedyMeds would like to get the drug discount card “in everybody’s hands,” he said.
Simply maintaining the current information on the website is a sizable task; details are updated daily, with employees constantly keeping up with new drugs, changes in requirements and coverages for various programs, and the availability (or shortages) of medications.
“Every time we think the work is done,” Sagall said, “we find something else.”