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Pennsylvania has a program to donate unused cancer medications. But the drugs are being wasted

KDKA Investigates: Pennsylvania's drug repository program is in name only
KDKA Investigates: Pennsylvania's drug repository program is in name only 06:23

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — We all know someone who has heard those three words: "You have cancer." 

Or maybe someone has said it to you. The life-altering diagnosis means there's a costly disease to beat. 

That's why 44 states, plus Washington D.C. and Guam, passed laws establishing drug repository programs. More than a dozen states offer programs that accept cancer drugs.

They help put unused, unexpired cancer drugs into the hands of patients in need. But at a time when some people decide between paying their mortgage or for life-saving medicine, KDKA Investigates learned our state's program is in name only.

The hard work already has been done here in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State's cancer drug repository program was enacted back in 2008, but people are finding out the hard way that there's no way to access it.

Inside Jeff Visnesky's Kittanning home are memories of his daughter and boxes of her unused medications.

"These are two cancer drugs, and they're valued at over $30,000 for one month's supply and the co-pay was like $1,400 for that," Visnesky said. 

His grief sometimes shifts to frustration when he looks at the hundreds of thousands of dollars of medications that couldn't cure his daughter, Michelle.

"Even her last day was amazing, and I think she knew. I think she knew it was coming quickly, but even her last day she was smiling," Visnesky said.

At just 27 years old, Michelle became one of nearly 28,000 people to die from cancer in Pennsylvania last year alone. And now her unused cancer drugs will join the other nearly $3 billion worth of cancer drugs thrown in the trash each year.

"I have a huge box of stuff that it just seems like nonsense to throw it away, but I didn't know what else to do," said Visnesky.

He called KDKA Investigates and asked why he found a copy of legislation online talking about donating unused cancer drugs, but everyone still told him to toss them.

He read Pennsylvania's 2008 Cancer Drug Repository Program Enactment, a way for approved participating pharmacies to "dispense unused cancer drugs" to people in need.

Surely, he thought, his daughter's unopened drugs could now go to good use, but he couldn't find out anything more about the program or any steps to follow.

"What's the hold-up? Because I think all that law in 2008 did was open the door to say this can be done, but I think that's where it stopped," Visnesky said. 

KDKA Investigates learned the Pennsylvania Department of State oversees the program and a spokesman said our state's program isn't designed for regular people to donate to it, but simply institutions like hospital systems and pharmacies use it. 

KDKA Investigates asked for a list of all the participating pharmacies across the state and learned only two signed up: A mom-and-pop store in Philadelphia and a large hospital's pharmacy in Hershey.

We talked to both and found out nothing happened after that initial sign-up period.

One even said, "I've never heard of that program, but it sounds like a great idea!"

"It almost feels like now, looking back at it, the program was rolled out but not much effort was put in to make sure it resulted in anything meaningful," said Jittu George, owner of Shop and Carry Pharmacy in Philadelphia.

George runs one of the two pharmacies signed up for the program. He said the state reached out years ago. 

"We were one of the pharmacies that did it and it's been several years and we have not had any drugs channeled through us," said George.

Even with a law enacted, states need to develop their programs.

State Rep. La'Tasha Mayes, a member of our the House Health Committee, thinks something's standing in our way.

"I can see there being great benefits. Of course, the cost savings are undisputable, it's undeniable," said Rep. Mayes, District 24 (D). "Iowa, Michigan, and other states who have enacted, Georgia, who have enacted this type of program, this repository program, they're saving billions."

She thinks other states have found a way to avoid waste. In Michigan, regular people can donate to the program, helping residents avoid going into further debt to cover cancer-related costs. 

"We don't want to waste the opportunity to save lives. Forget the cost of the drugs, we don't want to miss this very clear and present opportunity to save lives," Mayes said. 

Visnesky knows his daughter would want to see something happen with this medication.

"Sometimes you look for a good thing in a tragedy and I just saw it as an opportunity to maybe try to get some answers and make something good and positive come out of a bad thing," said Visnesky. 

Contributor: KDKA-TV Producer Tory Wegerski

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