Students help create prescription drug repository

Hannah Van Ochten and Rowan Mahon stand next to a poster about their prescription drug repository.
College of Pharmacy students Hannah Van Ochten, left, and Rowan Mahon next to an informational poster board on prescription drug repositories. 

Two University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy students are helping to launch a prescription drug repository in Minnesota that will collect and help redistribute unused medications to people who are struggling to pay for their own.

Rowan Mahon and Hannah Van Ochten were behind legislation to set up the repository, which they hope will launch next year. It’s an effort two years in the making, and one that’s required a crash course in politics… and a lot of persistence.

When Mahon first learned about prescription drug repositories, she assumed they existed in every state. “It wasn’t until I got to pharmacy school (at the U of M) that I began to realize that it was very state-specific and that Minnesota didn’t have one,” she says.

At one point she was working at a hospital in the emergency room and seeing patients come in with conditions like high blood pressure simply because they couldn’t afford basic medications. She also knew that unused medications—sometimes nearly entire blister packs at nursing homes—were literally being flushed away.

“I’m really against waste in any regard, and just knowing that we were throwing away all these really good medications… I guess I would say that it was pretty appalling,” Mahon says. “And I wanted to see if I could help.”

She and Van Ochten, with virtually no knowledge of the state legislative process, first had to get a bill passed clearing the way for a repository. That meant finding a sponsoring legislator, writing the language, and getting it passed. Their initial attempt in 2018 was part of a 990-page bill that was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

The students redoubled their efforts in the 2019 session, gaining the support of nine organizations (including the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy) and creatively capturing the attention of lawmakers. Groups of students hand-delivered 30-day pill packs filled with candy to all 201 legislators with a label saying: “Take one pill every day for 30 days and vote for House File 182,” jokes Mahon. “We went as cheesy as possible, and I recognize that, but it worked.”

Their measure was part of a state health bill approved by Gov. Tim Walz this spring. 

There are still plenty of details to iron out before the repository can launch—including finalizing legal paperwork, securing adequate funding, and arranging logistics for the medication transfers—but that doesn’t seem to faze Mahon, who was recently honored with the 2019 President's Student Leadership and Service Award, as well as the Mary A. McEvoy Public Engagement and Leadership Award.

“We’re trying to make it as patient-friendly as possible," she says. "We’re probably going to have to start a little bit smaller, but the goal is always to make sure we serve the entire state of Minnesota."