Since its humble beginning on Charles Thompson’s kitchen table 10 years ago, HEART USA has helped nearly 2,500 people in western Kentucky afford medications they otherwise couldn’t.
HEART, short for health care education and registration training, provides information and paperwork assistance to low-income patients across western Kentucky. The local program served as a model for a statewide prescription assistance program.
The idea was born when disabilities forced Thompson, a Paducah resident, to quit his job as a quality assurance director at an automotive supply company. During the two-year wait for disability benefits, Thompson struggled to buy food and pay his mortgage in the face of unfeasible medication costs.
“I had to find a way to get some help fast,” Thompson said. The assistance he needed came when a doctor gave him a coupon from a pharmaceutical company to take to the pharmacy. Thompson was stunned after receiving the medication at no cost.
“I literally stood outside the pharmacy for five minutes and stared at the bag,” Thompson said. “That spiked my interest in whether there were other ways to get medicines for free.”
Thompson researched other programs to see what discounts were available, and the results surprised him. Of the 11 medications he took for such conditions as diabetes, seven of them could be obtained for a lower co-pay, or none at all.
A conversation with his friend Bryant Hileman prompted Thompson to consider how his realization could help others with the same problem. Thompson and Hileman began work on the nonprofit soon after Thompson’s discovery, and they submitted to the IRS to form an official nonprofit in 2005.
“Our primary goal when we founded HEART USA was to improve access to free or reduced-cost prescription drugs,” Hileman said. Better access means increased medication compliance, fewer hospitalizations and trips to the emergency room, and less frequent sick patient visits, Hileman said.
Drug companies often do not advertise their aid programs well, and people who are ill have a hard time doing the research and paperwork required to enroll. Discovering what programs exist, what documentation is required, and when and how to reapply for a given program can be an overwhelming task for just one medication. When serious illness requires several, patients find themselves in a bind. That’s where HEART USA steps in.
Applicants to HEART USA must provide their basic income and medication information to the program’s volunteer staff. The staff then determines whether the applicant is eligible for any of the pre-existing programs pharmaceutical companies offer.
Volunteers assist qualified applicants in filling out paperwork, gathering documents and applying for refills. This allows patients to enroll in free or reduced-cost programs and experience less hassle when dealing with multiple medications.
The organization is dedicated to serving citizens of all backgrounds, said Cheryl Boyd, HEART USA’s executive director of mobile services. “There is no (average) age for participants. It’s all across the board. We’ve got teenagers to people who have Alzheimer’s and are in nursing homes. We do not refuse anyone help,” Boyd said.
A total of 19 volunteers work in the organization’s four offices. “Our volunteers are what make HEART USA special,” Boyd said. “No one here is in it for money. We’re all in it to help people.”
Many staff members either know former clients, or have benefited from the organization themselves, and are sympathetic to the difficulties of uninsured Kentuckians.
Volunteers are educated according to confidentiality guidelines, as they would be in a doctor’s office, said Boyd. “The volunteers receive HIPAA training before they conduct interviews or fill out patients’ forms. We guard our client’s privacy with everything we have,” Boyd said.
HEART USA offers services in Ballard County and Mayfield, and Lourdes Hospital donated more office space last April.
According to participants, this donation is one of many examples of the generosity that has helped HEART USA from the beginning. Whether the organization has needed mechanized wheelchairs, computers, or simply a few hours of a caring person’s time, people across western Kentucky have pitched in and given to the cause.
“Every time we’ve needed a door to open, it’s opened,” Thompson said. “I never thought we would help so many people.”
Call Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641.