Connecting seniors to health care

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Health-care delivery is changing rapidly and dramatically, making it increasingly more difficult for people to make sense of and choose from among their options for health care.

In Durham, with number of individuals age 60 and older expected to grow over 40 percent to nearly 70,000 over the next 10 years, coping with health care can be particularly tough on seniors.

Working to help Durham seniors keep up with that change and live healthier lives is Senior PharmAssist, which began operating in 1994 as a program of the Coordinating Council for Senior Citizens and in 1998 became a separate nonprofit.

“Health care traditionally is thought of as medical services, which take up a vast amount of money in health-care delivery,” says Gina Upchurch, executive director and founder of Senior PharmAssist. “But what we really need to think about are the social determinants of health. What influences health is genetics and behavior, but so much is determined by where we live, the education we have, the housing we have.”

Operating with an annual budget of $811,000, plus $220,000 in in-kind donations, the nonprofit employs six people working full-time and three working part-time, and counts on 20 regular office volunteers.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, it served over 2,200 individuals, up 15 percent from the previous year, and it expects its client base to grow by nine percent this year. Each year over the past 10 years, its client base has grown by double digits.

Working largely through collaborations and coalitions that focus on improving policies, practices and systems to make health care more affordable and accessible, Senior PharmAssist works to help seniors with limited incomes pay directly for medicine after coverage by Medicare.

Its clinical pharmacists, all trained in geriatric pharmacy, work with seniors to manage their medication therapy.

And it provides community referrals and care management tailored to each senior it serves, as well as counseling on Medicare insurance.

A key collaboration, with the Geriatric Education Center at Duke University and the Triangle J Area Agency on Aging, is working to providing geriatric training for new primary care physicians, nurses and other health-care professionals, and to share best practices in geriatrics with primary care practices and community groups.

Upchurch co-chairs Partnership for a Healthy Durham, a coalition that includes Senior PharmAssist and is working on a range of issues, including making health care more accessible for everyone in Durham, regardless of age or income.

That coalition also is working on a shared resource directory with Durham’s Partnership for Seniors, which also is working on a compendium for providers on best practices in the areas of medication management, dementia care, and transitions in care.

Senior PharmAssist also is part of End Poverty Durham, a coalition that is addressing poverty and structural racism and its impact on the entire community.

And it coordinates the Durham Medicare Rx Network, which focuses mainly on making sure people understand Medicare and their Medicare rights, and how to get their medications and health services through Medicare, regardless of their age or income.

That is particularly important as the annual period for choosing Medicare benefits begins October 15.

“Every year, Medicare benefits change,” Upchurch says. “People can save money tremendously and ensure they have access to the providers they need by reviewing their options.”

Now, as it works to adapt to the continuous change and increasing complexity of health care for the growing population of seniors, Senior PharmAssist aims to match a challenge grant of nearly $50,000 from the Stewards Fund by raising an equal amount between September 1 and December 31 from lapsed or new donors or those making larger gifts than in the past.

And it aims to raise another $75,000 at its second annual breakfast on September 15 at the Hilton Durham.

“Health care doesn’t just happen in a medical office,” Upchurch says. “Your health is  influenced significantly by your community. We need policies and procedures and systems that are set up to improve care for older adults.”

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