Thursday, September 19, 2019

Hanging on the wall in more than 240 Super-Pharm locations in Israel is a large blue and white pill-shaped container. One might think it’s a new publicity gimmick, but it’s actually a revolutionary game-changing idea.

On a daily basis, packages of unfinished/unused or no-longer-needed medications are deposited into these containers by patients or their families. From these locations, as well as hundreds of others throughout the country, the medicines are taken to a central depository called Chemipal and from there they are transported to a central pharmacy in Bnei Brak.

This is not an ordinary pharmacy, but the only free pharmacy in the country. In it, 19 volunteer pharmacists go through the collection, often numbering over 6,000 packages a day, sorting the valid medications by categories. Expired medications are sent for green disposal. The usable medications are then delivered free-of-charge nationwide to patients suffering from chronic illnesses who simply can’t afford their medicine, or made accessible for pick-up well into the late hours of the night at the facility as pre-arranged by patient and pharmacist. This unique and tremendous project was undertaken in response to the overwhelming statistic that in Israel in 2017, close to 277,000 people gave up trying to obtain their medications because of financial hardship.

“The joint effort between Haverim Le’Refuah (Friends for Health) and Super-Pharm is nothing less than a miracle!” shared Erez Naftali of Passaic, who joined this project four years ago and serves as the executive director of the U.S.-based organization “Chaverim Israel Family Services.”

Naftali stated that the chesed performed for needy people in Israel is truly avodat hakodesh, holy work. “Saving lives every single day is what keeps us going full speed ahead.”

Naftali’s personal story started with a visit to his late uncle seven years ago while still living in Israel. He noticed that his uncle was taking many medications for his heart condition. During that visit he learned from his aunt that one of the medications was pumping the heart too strongly and keeping his 82-year-old uncle awake at night. The only medication prescribed as a replacement was out of network and well out of the affordability range for the couple, at a cost of 1,750 shekel per month. Naftali took the prescription, hoping to find a chesed organization that could help with the cost of the medicine. When he discovered Haverim Le’Refuah’s website offering a simple online questionnaire, requesting a valid prescription and some supporting documents, he didn’t realize that within a few days his uncle would be receiving three months’ worth of the medication at his doorstep free of charge. Naftali and his family have since moved to Passaic, and four years ago Naftali accepted the position of executive director for the U.S.-based organization “Chaverim-IFS,” through which fundraising for this unique and vital organization has become his mission in life.

Haverim Le’Refuah was co-founded in 2003 by Rabbi Yechiel Landman, z”l and R’ Baruch Liberman as a reaction to the change in Israeli health insurance services about 15 years ago that left lower class, middle and even upper class Israelis contending with skyrocketing prices for necessary life-saving medications. The crisis came to a boiling point when formerly self-sufficient families were forced to make the decision between buying food or medicine. Rabbi Landman’s personal experience helped spark the idea, when a relative passed away leaving many unused medications.

With the Israeli government’s approval and in consultation with Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, the project took off. Until recently there were only 600 drop-off locations throughout the country, in doctors’ offices, health clinics, banks (Bank Hamizrahi) and office buildings. Every medication has a stamp with an expiration date and batch code. Fortunately, because Israeli medicines are packaged by the pharmaceutical companies in blister packs as opposed to containers, the unused pills remain sanitary and uncontaminated. Statistically, 300 million shekel of unused drugs are discarded in Israel each year at a minimum

The effective lobbying of their legal team, which consists of all volunteers, has gained the organization the government’s full sanction for collecting unused medications at drug stores and pharmacies in addition to all other approved collection locations. The partnership with Super-Pharm since March of this year has added 240 drop-off locations (one in each of their drugstores) and has done wonders, significantly boosting the quantity of donated medicine that reaches Haverim Le’Refuah’s headquarters. Medications distributed free of charge by Haverim Le’Refuah can cost from as little as 15 shekel to as much as 39,500 shekel per package, and higher in some cases. The end result of this process is that the patients receive the medicines they need at their doorstep at no cost to them whatsoever.

Partnering with Haverim Le Refuah in addition to Super-Pharm are United Hatzalah and Zaka, which help in identifying sources for collection as well as transporting the medications to the free pharmacy. A fleet of volunteer drivers deliver the medications throughout the country and a skilled team of lawyers advocate pro bono on behalf of some patients who reach out to Haverim Le’Refuah for help to gain highly expensive medicine at a fair copay or free of charge. During the past 15 years, recipients of Haverim Le’Refuah have included thousands of native Israelis as well as foreign tourists, yeshiva and gap-year students from around the globe and, in some cases, Arabs.

Naftali shared, “The success of this project is indicated by the value of the medications distributed for free by the organization in Israel. In 2018 alone, over 82 million shekel worth of medicine was delivered to approximately 4,500 patients on a monthly basis, and the number keeps growing. The entire project is run on a very low annual budget of 1 million U.S.dollars, received through small monthly private donations by people in Israel and around the world, demonstrating their gratitude and appreciation. Donations from the recipients themselves are never accepted.”

“Currently there are 2,000 people on the waiting list. Our hope for this upcoming year is to accept as many as possible and reach our goal of servicing over 5,000 patients every month. You can help support this mission. You can give us the financial backing needed to keep delivering monthly, life-saving medicine to thousands of needy patients! Together we can make sure they don’t face the moral dilemma of food vs. medicine,” Naftali added.

To donate or learn more about this free pharmacy program, visit www.chaverim-ifs.org/free-pharmacy email [email protected] or call 800-932-1416.

“Chaverim Israel Family Services” is a nonprofit organization 501 (c)(3) and can be found in the database of; JCF, Fidelity, Benevity GuideStar, PayPal Giving Fund and Amazon Smile.

By Pearl Markovitz