A makeshift Jewish communal medicine bank, staffed by volunteers, has evolved into a professional operation serving thousands of needy Argentine Jews. Founded in 1999 in response to the demands of Argentina’s impoverished Jews, Community Pharmacy Refuot supplies medicine to people with chronic diseases and other illnesses who can’t afford the drugs they need.
A combination of unemployment, lack of health insurance, reductions in retiree benefits from the state’s health-care system and the inability of public hospitals to cope with the amount of people who can’t afford medical treatment had created a dire situation for Argentina’s neediest Jews.
In the medicine bank’s first years, one professional pharmacist coordinated its work along with a small group of rotating volunteers, providing 400 people a month with 500 prescription drugs.
The team worked out of offices in various institutions until they settled into permanent office space in 2001, provided by Club Nautico Hacoaj, a Jewish club and community center.
Today the Refuot staff has grown to six pharmacists and 27 volunteers who receive, classify and distribute medicines to Jews enrolled in the community’s social-assistance system. Eighty percent of Refuot’s beneficiaries are older than 50.
The venture serves 7,000 people through 70 Jewish centers around the country run by groups such as the Tzedaka Jewish Foundation, which administers the Refuot program along with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; the Argentine Mutual Aid Association, the country’s main Jewish institution; the Argentina Chabad-Lubavitch organization; and others.
In 2004, Refuot distributed 122,000 containers of medicine. According to Refuot’s coordinator, Betina Rosental, a pharmacist and biochemist, the organization spent $660,000 in 2004 to buy and distribute those medicines.
Adhering closely to the Argentine Health Ministry’s legal standards, Refuot searches for the best drug prices on the market, without sacrificing quality. If needy Jews were to receive cash to buy the same medicines themselves, the cost would skyrocket to at least $1 million dollars, Rosental told JTA.
In addition, Refuot has strong controls in place to prevent staff from providing excessive doses of drugs or prescribing drugs that haven’t been proven effective. Several times, they have asked patients’ doctors to write out prescriptions differently.
“If 50 milligrams were needed and the doctor could prescribe 100 milligrams, the patient could split the pill and make it last longer. We need to make this project as sustainable as we can,” Rosental said.
Donations from medical laboratories and individuals account for 20 percent of Refuot’s stock. Medicines and supplies not used by Refuot beneficiaries are donated to public hospitals and a medical center in a Buenos Aires shantytown.
Juan Granovsky was born in 1937 in the Jewish colony of Moisesville in Argentina’s Santa Fe province, but has been a Buenos Aires resident since age 16. The widower worked for decades in a fumigation and disinfection company.
The $93 he receives in monthly retirement benefits isn’t enough for all the medicines he needs: He has had six heart bypass operations and suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammation of the colon.
“Since Refuot helps me through a nearby social-assistance center, I can control my most difficult health problems. I have some relief now,” Granovsky told JTA.
The people who receive medicine aren’t the only ones who benefit from Refuot; so, too, do the volunteers.
Enrolled to classify donated medicines and separate those that have expired, Chela Blumenfeld, 77, says, “I have to be honest: I do this work mainly for myself. I couldn’t exist without working. And this opportunity is the best thing that happened to me. It was my salvation. I’m the prime beneficiary.”
Refuot’s staff and volunteers don’t usually get to see the beneficiaries — they receive their medicines at community centers — but they’re aware of the contribution they’re making to the Jewish community.
“If Refuot hadn’t been established, many people would have been defenseless in these difficult years,”said Gustavo Szmulewicz, 52, a pharmacist who has been a Refuot employee for the past three years. “This is my work; I receive a salary. But I’m happy to work on a solidarity project, where people are truly helped.”