Demand for Free Prescription Drug Program at Upstate Low, So Far

By Mary Beth Roach

Medications for Hope, a new program that provides free prescription medications to the poor, enrolls fewer people than expected

A free prescription program launched by Upstate Medical University a few months ago for qualifying patients has not reached its target enrollment numbers yet, but there is no minimum number of enrollees that will cause the program to stop, officials said.

They had hoped to sign up 10 to 15 people a month for the Medications for Hope program, according to Eric Balotin, director of Retail/Specialty Pharmacy Services at Upstate, but since its was unveiled in September, the program had a total of about 10 patients signed up by the end of September.

While he’s surprised that the numbers aren’t higher, he and his team are ramping up efforts to reach target audiences.

It provides free prescriptions for most drugs to those patients without insurance and whose income is at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Even delivery of the meds is free, regardless of whether they’re shipped or sent through a courier service.

“We know there is a significant need in the community. We know we have a very high poverty rate among children and a very high poverty rate in general compared to the national,” according to Balotin.

The introduction of Medications for Hope comes at a time when the poverty rate in Syracuse is at 32.6%, compared to 15.1% across New York state, according to and the U.S.

Census has reported that Syracuse has the highest level of child poverty in the country at 48.4%.

“We know there is a significant need in the community. We know we have a very high poverty rate among children and a very high poverty rate in general compared to the national,” Balotin said.

The initiative has been several years in the making and it was rolled out earlier this summer throughout Onondaga County. In early September, Upstate broadened the program’s scope to include communities as far north as Watertown, south into the Ithaca and Binghamton areas, east to Oneida and west to Auburn.

Anyone who meets the criteria, even if they are not Upstate patients, can receive their prescriptions through this program.

While there are certain medications that are not available through the program, referred to as specialty meds, Balotin explained that there is a whole class of therapy meds that can be provided.

Insulin, which has increased in cost in the United States by more than 1,000%, is also available through Medications for Hope. However, the needles used for injection, can be cost-prohibitive and are not covered.

Balotin said they will work with patients to make everything as affordable as possible.

While New York City has five similar programs, Medications for Hope is unique to the Upstate New York area.

The project is due to the generosity of the generic manufacturers, he said. Most of the meds are being provided free of charge from manufacturers to a centralized location and then Upstate gets its supply shipped from this site. The manufacturers have, at certain times, an abundance of extra medications, so instead of discarding them because they’re going to expire, they offer them through the program, Balotin explained.

While the hospital assumes the cost of shipping and the labor to prepare the prescriptions, Balotin pointed out that the costs are still less than hospitalization for someone without the financial means or insurance, adding that 30% to 40% of prescriptions are never filled, which often results in added hospital admissions and readmissions.

“We’re really trying to get on top of this, trying to help our community and that what it’s all about,” he said.

Those interested in learning more about the program can call the Upstate Pharmacy at 315-492-5311, ask their doctor or visit