By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — For the past 31 years, over 37,000 people have received over $2.5 million worth of medicine, thanks to FIGS, an all-volunteer Raleigh nonprofit that helps pay for prescription drugs for residents of Wake County who otherwise could not afford medication.
“We are assisting people who are working with no insurance or insufficient insurance,” says Myra Brickell, treasurer and former president of the board of directors of FIGS and a pharmacist at Student Health Services at N.C. State University.
FIGS, formerly known as Filling in Gaps, grew out of a conversation that representatives of downtown churches had in 1982 with officials of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The group asked what the department’s greatest need was, and the officials replied it was prescription drug assistance for low-income people, particularly those who were elderly or chronically ill.
“Many of the people we assist are people who actually work,” Brickell says.
Because many of its clients have chronic illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and mental illness, she says, the support they receive helps keep them out of emergency rooms, which they also cannot afford.
That small investment, she says, helps clients stay healthy while also reducing the cost to taxpayers of emergency room care.
FIGS coordinates its program with Urban Ministries of Wake County, as well as local physicians and pharmacists.
Sam McLean, crisis support director at Urban Ministries, says the agency’s clients often must make tough tradeoffs between paying for medication they need and paying for rent, utilities and food.
Without FIGS, “it would be difficult on people,” he says. “Do I get my medication or do I feed my kids?”
FIGS created a program for Urban Ministries to train its staff and volunteers to interview clients who need assistance with prescription drugs.
For a client who qualifies for assistance, staff at Urban Ministries phone the pharmacy the client selects, get a price estimate, and give the client a voucher to take to the pharmacy, along with the prescription.
The client gets the medicine and pays nothing.
The pharmacy collects receipts from clients and sends a statement to FIGS at its post office box, which is “the closest thing we have to an office,” says Brickell, who retrieves the statements and pays the pharmacies.
“The patient never has the money in hand,” she says. “The pharmacy bills us directly.”
FIGS, which has an endowment with the Wake County Community Foundation, an affiliate of the North Carolina Community Foundation, pays about $140,000 a year for prescription drugs for roughly 900 people.
And 99 percent of its budget is used to pay for prescription drugs, with the remainder paying for the Post Office box, postage and a brochure it uses in an annual fundraising appeal.
It receives support from churches, foundations, individuals and the City of Raleigh.
It biggest single source of support is The Stewards Fund, which provides $30,000 a year.
Each October, FIGS mails an appeal for funds and typically raises about $30,000.
And its supporters can be loyal: One individual has been sending a monthly contribution that has increased over 11 years to $75 from $50.
FIGS also holds a potluck lunch twice a year for its board to hear representatives from Urban Ministries talk about its impact on their clients.
And it participates in “alternative giving bazaars” at local churches, and it plans to expand its 10-member board as part of an effort to raise more money to address clients’ needs.
“Demand is greater than we can support,” Brickell says.