Tim Reel was tired of having to destroy perfectly good medicine.
Reel is a self-described "lowly staff pharmacist" at prescription drug services giant OptumRx in Overland Park. In that role he gets shipments of unused medications sent back regularly. Some have dented or scuffed packaging. Others come from nursing homes or hospitals after patients no longer need them or have died.
"I asked my boss if we could donate it," Reel said. "He said 'I don't think we can. There's no law that allows it.'"
That was 10 years ago.
On Thursday Reel looked on from the back of a room at the Duchesne Clinic in Kansas City, Kan., while leaders of OptumRx, United Healthcare and Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer celebrated $20 million in prescription drugs donated to tens of thousands of poor Kansans.
It all started with that conversation between Reel and his boss, who was a member of the Kansas State Board of Pharmacy, a regulatory group based in Topeka that licenses the state's pharmacies.
The board worked with the Kansas Legislature on a bill to loosen the law and allow donations of unused, unopened prescription drugs.
Colyer, who was a legislator at the time, said most lawmakers didn't even realize it was prohibited.
"A lot of people were just surprised, like, 'Why do we have to do this?'" Colyer said. "And then it was like, 'Yeah, let's turn on the light.'"
The Kansas Unused Medication Donation Act, passed in 2008, was the first of its kind in the nation. It allows adult care homes, mail service pharmacies and medical care facilities to donate medication in its original packaging to 38 safety-net clinics and medical centers throughout the state that serve low-income and uninsured Kansans.
The program is administered by one of those clinics in southeast Kansas. The staff there keeps an inventory of what medications are available and takes orders from the other clinics on a website created with grant money from the Kansas Health Foundation.
There are some exclusions: No expired medications and no controlled substances, such as opioid painkillers, are allowed.
But staff members at Duchesne Clinic said that other than that it's just like ordering medicine from a private-sector supplier. But it's all free, even the shipping, thanks to a grant from the state health department.
Trudy Taylor of Leavenworth is one of the Kansans who has benefited.
Taylor is uninsured and has been going to a free clinic for care for years to help manage her diabetes and other health problems. She was able to get insulin and other medicine through the donation program until her applications for the drug manufacturers' prescription assistance programs went through.
"There are several medications I take that I would not have been able to afford," Taylor said. "I'd probably be in the hospital or worse without the insulin."
Thousands of people across Kansas have stories like that, which is still hard for Reel to comprehend.
When he and his boss started talking about trying to change the law, they figured it might result in a few hundred donated drugs. Which is a lesson for other "lowly" front-line employees, Reel said.
"Keep your eyes open and if you think you might be able to help, jump in," Reel said. "And keep at it. This didn't happen overnight."