Santa Clara County Opens Free ‘Drug Donation’ Pharmacy

Santa Clara County has opened the state’s first pharmacy dedicated to collecting and dispensing unused medication.

The Better Health Pharmacy, headquartered at the Mediplex building in central San Jose, offers unused, unopened and unexpired prescription drugs at no cost to patients.

Last year, the county’s Board of Supervisors allocated funding to remodel the Mediplex office space into California’s first surplus drug redistribution pharmacy.

Source: SIRUM

Source: SIRUM

“We are delighted and grateful to have this beautiful space that we may better serve the people in our community who need these medications,” Jennefer Yoon, the pharmacy’s assistant director, said in a statement. “The funding … is helping us meet our mission of ‘medication access for all.’”

Every year, Americans throw out $9 billion a year in unused prescriptions and medical supplies, according to the county. In California, about $100 million annually goes to waste, polluting 70 percent of waterways.

Meanwhile, according to public health officials, about a quarter of uninsured patients forgo drugs they need because they can’t afford them. The growing need for free medicine coupled with the county’s effort to decrease waste led supervisors to find a permanent home for the pharmacy.

Better Health started out in 2008 as a repository run out of the county’s Public Health Department pharmacy on Lenzen Avenue in San Jose. Initially, it served only county health facilities. It has since grown into a 16-hour-a-week service managed by nine volunteers under county oversight.

Since its inception, the county’s redistribution effort has saved more than $400,000 by dispensing upward of 8,700 prescriptions.

“When this program started we were storing donated medications wherever we could find the space,” pharmacist-in-charge Khanh Pham said. “We now have room to store and dispense a wider variety of medications. We hope this will help us serve more county residents at this pharmacy.”


Source: SIRUM

Then-state Sen. Joe Simitian introduced the bill in 2005 that legalized pharmaceutical reuse. He introduced a bill in 2012 that expanded the law to allow primary care clinics and pharmacies to participate in the program.

The idea stemmed from a project by a group of Stanford University students to curb waste and help uninsured patients. Their research resulted in a nonprofit called Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine, or SIRUM. Now, more than a decade later, Simitian has continued to implement their idea and his legislation as a county supervisor.

For safety reasons, consumers cannot donate their unused medicine. The law allows only licensed clinics and hospitals, drug manufacturers and wholesalers, pharmacies and skilled nursing centers to donate.

As social service agencies, counties bear the brunt of indigent patient care—particularly counties that manage public hospitals like Valley Medical Center. Having a resource for free medications will help patients such as the low-income, elderly, mentally ill and former inmates would would otherwise have no way to pay.

Because medications are donated, however, the supply can be unpredictable. State law also prevents the Better Health pharmacy from accepting or dispensing controlled drugs, including many opiate painkillers, benzodiazepines and stimulants.

The inventory of available drugs is posted online. Anyone can claim the medication as long as they have a valid prescription.

WHAT: Better Health Pharmacy
WHERE: Suite #202 at 725 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
HOURS: 4 to 8pm Monday through Wednesday; 9am to 1pm Saturday.
INFO: 408.794.0564 or

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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