Donations to Bellingham Herald’s Extend-a-Hand charity benefit local community

Two changes this year at Interfaith Community Health Center in Bellingham sharply increased the number of patients who received help with their prescriptions from Extend-a-Hand, The Bellingham Herald’s community charity.

Extend-a-Hand helps Interfaith patients with prescriptions and helps low-income residents find and keep rental housing through the Opportunity Council, a nonprofit community agency.

Last holiday season people donated $54,408 to Extend-a-Hand. The Herald covers the charity’s administrative costs for up to $50,000 in donations, so most gifts directly support people in need.

This was the first year Interfaith received Extend-a-Hand money with the health center’s new in-house pharmacy in operation. Having the pharmacy next door makes it easier and quicker to determine which patients qualify for Extend-a-Hand support, said Gib Clarke, Interfaith’s director of planning and development.

“It’s a lot more efficient,” he said. “You’re dealing with pharmacists you know personally.”

In addition, the center used some Extend-a-Hand money this year to help patients who have health insurance but who still have trouble covering co-payments for prescriptions and medical devices, such as inhalers and EpiPens.

The center has more insured patients this year because of last fall’s inaugural enrollment under the federal Affordable Care Act, but that doesn’t mean they all can afford large co-payments. Clarke cited the example of a man with pneumonia who needed antibiotics and an inhaler. He had both Medicare and Medicaid coverage but lacked the cash for co-pays.

In addition, Interfaith is a federally qualified health center, so it obtains prescriptions at the lowest cost offered by drug companies.

In 2013, Extend-a-Hand helped 129 people with 258 prescriptions at Interfaith. So far this year, Extend-a-Hand has helped 323 people with 437 prescriptions. Of those 323 people, 253 were insured and 70 had some insurance but needed help with co-pays.

“Extend-a-Hand is spending less money per prescription,” Clarke said. “People here are really thrilled to have this program.”

At the Opportunity Council, Extend-a-Hand donations helped 118 households, including 89 families with children, avoid eviction or receive other housing help this year, said Jessica Brown, homeless housing programs manager. Last year, 132 households received help.

People are helped with housing two ways. One program helps people who have jobs but little to no savings by providing deposits or first-month’s rent so they can live in a place of their own.

Brown cited a mother with a teenage daughter who, due to a family crisis, were sleeping in their truck. The mother found full-time work but didn’t have money saved up to move out of the truck and into a rental. Extend-a-Hand money was used to help with their deposit and first month’s rent in time to have them in a home before the girl’s homecoming dance.

Also, an eviction prevention program provides short-term aid to people having a hard time covering their rent but who are assessed to be good bets to keep their housing long term. Those people receive job-finding help if a loss of employment is contributing to their imminent eviction.

Brown mentioned a single mother with four children who faced eviction. The mother couldn’t work because she was undergoing dialysis treatment. When their car needed repairs, the mother faced the choice of paying rent or paying for repairs so she could get to treatment. With Extend-a-Hand help, the family was able to stay in their home while the mother underwent treatment.

“There are a lot of people out there in need who are at risk of losing their housing,” Brown said.