Santa Clara County looks to expand low-cost drug program
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian at a news conference in March 2022. Simitian is pushing for the county to expand its MedAssist program to help residents access prescription drugs for low to no cost. File photo.

    Santa Clara County residents can check insulin, asthma inhalers and EPI pen costs off their worry list, as a new county program looks to expand.

    The county’s $1 million MedAssist initiative, which launched last March, offers monthly grants to pay for asthma inhalers, epinephrine auto-injectors (EPI pens), insulin and other diabetes medications. The program serves county residents 18 and up with valid prescriptions and proof of out-of-pocket expenses for health care. It helps residents who make too much to qualify for state or federal support programs, but still need help covering high prescription drug costs. As of February, 365 residents are getting lifesaving drugs on a monthly basis at little to no cost.

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said about $600,000 of the original funding from the county’s health budget has been used. His office and the county health system are now looking into expanding enrollment to those under 18 to reach families or children with conditions like asthma.

    “This is one of those things that people have talked about for a long time… The need is very clear,” Simitian told San José Spotlight. “People are making hard choices every day that they shouldn’t have to in terms of their family’s well-being.”

    Stacie Chan, a county health system pharmacist in charge of MedAssist’s operations and development, said the program is already alleviating financial stress for residents. She said participants can get up to $500 monthly to cover out-of-pocket costs, regardless of insurance coverage. MedAssist serves both low- and middle-income residents, and a household of four with an annual gross income of up to $284,700 is eligible, Chan added.

    “Instead of having to worry about how to pay for things, (patients) can really focus more on their health now,” Chan told San José Spotlight.

    Enrollment for MedAssist is year-round. A 2023 county report reveals 612 applications have been received as of February. Officials estimate more than 128,000 adult county residents could use financial help for their medications, approximately 119,000 county adults have diabetes and approximately 257,000 have asthma, according to the county report.

    The bureaucracy of health care often acts as a barrier to getting resources, Simitian said, and disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Patient accessibility is a core component of the program, he added. Residents can submit applications online, over the phone or in-person, and multilingual services are available.

    “A lot of folks don’t get the health care or the health care coverage they need because the system is so damn cumbersome,” Simitian said. “The American health care system is tough for almost anyone to navigate, but particularly tough for folks who are perhaps using English as a second language.”

    Chan said MedAssist serves a significant amount of minority patients, including Latino and Vietnamese residents. Diabetes is more prevalent in communities of color, according to the American Diabetes Association, with 11.8% of Hispanics having diabetes nationwide in comparison to 7.4% of white counterparts. She said the long-term impacts of the program include less emergency room visits for patients who can access medication consistently and decreased future health complications.

    “These are not nice-to-have, these are have-to-have,” Simitian said. “There are a lot of folks out there who are skipping meds, splitting pills, making sacrifices in terms of their housing costs or putting food on the table, because they think they have no other option.”

    Learn more information about MedAssist.

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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