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How to Donate Prescription Drugs

Billions of dollars in unused medicine goes to waste annually

illustration of pills coming out of prescription bottle to form a heart shape
KrizzDaPaul / Getty Images

As much as $11 billion in unused medicine is discarded each year. That’s in spite of rising drug prices that prevent tens of millions of Americans from filling prescriptions. To counter this, state governments have established programs allowing pharmacies, health care centers, hospitals and nonprofits to accept unused medicine to treat heart disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV and a host of other illnesses. ​

These programs match uninsured and underinsured patients with donated drugs, helping people in need and reducing both waste and the negative impact prescription drugs have on the environment. Roughly 70 percent of waterways in the United States are contaminated with pharmaceutical runoff, according to SIRUM (Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine), a nonprofit that connects individuals who want to donate medicines with drug programs and community programs that will accept them.  

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“Very few people even know donating medicine is an option. There’s all these takeback programs and bins in pharmacies, but all that gets destroyed,” says Adam Kircher, cofounder of SIRUM. “We’re destroying perfectly good unused medicine when potentially, down the street, there might be a family that needs that medicine but can’t afford it.”

How these programs work

At last count, 40 states, Guam and Washington, D.C., had Good Samaritan drug donation and reuse laws on the books establishing drug repository programs. The laws enable drug companies, health care providers and individuals to donate sealed, unused drugs in their original packaging. The medicine is inspected by a licensed pharmacist, who checks the expiration date, looks for signs of tampering and confirms the drug is what its label says it is. Once it’s given a green light, the medicine can be dispensed to uninsured and underinsured patients via participating pharmacies, hospitals, clinics and community health centers.

Since launching in 2009, SIRUM has shipped more than 30,000 donations valued at about $167 million through its platform. The company aims to get nearly $1 billion worth of donated medicine to a million patients over the next five years. 

To donate through SIRUM, individuals are required to fill out a form online and pay for shipping. Once the shipping is paid, SIRUM will email a tax receipt, a donation manifest and a shipping label. SIRUM vets the drugs and hands them over to partners that dispense the medicine to patients in communities. 

SafeNetRx, which serves Iowa residents but has national aspirations, has collected about $86 million worth of medicine that has been donated to nearly 124,000 patients. Drugs have to be six months or more from expiration and sealed in tamper-evident packaging. People donating are required to complete a donation form. Medicine can be mailed or delivered in person. 

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What’s accepted

The aim of these programs is to help people cover the cost of expensive medicine. As a result, not every drug is accepted. SIRUM takes only medicine that’s sealed, has an expiration date of five months out or more, doesn’t have to be refrigerated and isn’t classified as a controlled substance. 

Kircher says medicine to treat diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol, mental health, CODP, HIV and cancer are most commonly donated. “The Good Samaritan laws started because of the sheer expense associated with oncology medicine,” he says. “The states realized, ‘What’s the point of only allowing one type of drug?’ So they’ve expanded state programs to include more and more.”   

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Cancer drugs a big focus

It makes sense that cancer drugs are a big focus of these programs. Oral chemotherapy medicine can cost $5,000 to $10,000 per month. For Medicare patients with a 20 percent copay, that amounts to $2,000. “Most people can’t afford that. Some patients mortgage their homes to pay for cancer drugs. It’s devastating to watch,” says Scott Silverstein, director of pharmacy services at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. 

Silverstein spearheaded the drug donation program for Huntsman after the state expanded its drug donation law two years ago to include patients and family members of patients. Huntsman will take unopened cancer medicine in its original bottle. The script has to match the pill count, and the donation has to be made in person. Donors are required to sign a form attesting that the medicine was stored properly and wasn’t tampered with. 

The donated medicine goes to cancer patients who are uninsured, on Medicare or Medicaid, or have private insurance but can’t afford to pay. “The only avenues are to use patient assistance programs and grant funds,” Silverstein says. “A lot of times, by the end of the year, the grant funds have run out, and patients have to pay out of pocket. If they don’t have the money, they forgo getting prescriptions. That’s not acceptable, and that’s why we built this.” 

The program at Huntsman was recently used to good effect when Matt Canham, a Seattle resident, donated his grandfather’s leftover cancer medicine. The medicine had successfully treated his grandfather’s prostate cancer, but he died of other causes. Canham found the drugs when cleaning out his grandfather’s belongings. “I remember him telling me how expensive the pills were and wondering how hard this would be for people who didn’t have the right insurance,” Canham says. “I found a few bottles of that really expensive medication that was unopened, and thought there has to be some way this can go to someone who doesn’t have insurance or the resources my grandfather had.” 

Decision isn’t always easy 

Canham’s decision to donate to Huntsman was an easy one. Not only had his grandfather been treated at the cancer institute, he was a big University of Utah football fan. For other families, deciding if and where to donate unused medicine may not be as clear cut. Canham says it’s important for someone to be aware of what drugs a family member in poor health is taking. That person can also decide the best way to donate or dispose of the medicine. “If I didn’t know what those pills were, I probably wouldn’t have tried to find a place to donate them,” Canham says. 

How to Donate Unused Drugs

Step 1: Locate a place to donate the unused medication. Start with the hospital where your loved one was treated. It may have a program in place to accept the medication. You can also check with your local pharmacy, contact your state Board of Pharmacy or get in touch with SIRUM

Step 2: Make sure your medicine is accepted. Most programs have a list of medicines they accept and reject. In all cases, the medicine has to be sealed in the original bottle. That means no amber vials you get at the pharmacy. The drug count has to match the prescription and be stored properly. 

Step 3: Mail or deliver the medication. Depending on where you donate the medicine, you’ll either mail it or deliver it in person. You’ll have to complete a form, and you can request a receipt if you are using the donation for a tax deduction. 

Step 4: Consider donating medical supplies beyond medicine. Many of these programs will accept nonexpired medical supplies, new or gently used durable medical equipment and biomedical devices.