By Genine Hopkins
CCTC Director Tom Pirnstill is a key player in the Clare County community. From his work organizing the Paula Pirnstill Health and Safety Fair at Farwell High School each year in memory of his beloved wife Paula, whom he lost to cancer some years back, to initiating the conversation on a regional transportation system to help those who must travel out of county for medical treatment, Pirnstill’s mark on the community is huge.
But one of the most important roles he’s played is as an advocate for the redistribution of expensive prescription drugs to those without the means to pay for them, and for that long road to seeing his idea signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Pirnstill received a beautiful, handmade plaque from Michigan Representative Joel Johnson, who serves Michigan 97th District that includes the Clare County area. Rep. Johnson presented the plaque – made by his wife Dawn – to Pirnstill at the CCTC’s “Transit Rodeo,” on Saturday, June 22, 2013.
The presentation was a surprise to Pirnstill and completely unexpected. Seeing the plaque, which shows the journey Pirnstill took to see his idea through, including a personal collage of the woman who inspired his bid to see expensive drugs redistributed: Paula. In addition to Paula’s photos were images of Pirnstill testifying before Michigan’s Congressional Committee as well as the historical photo of Gov. Snyder signing the bill into law – the pen he signed with is also in the case of the plaque. Pirnstill’s eyes looked teary as he accepted the award.
“This is a beautiful legacy to have for Paula,” Pirnstill stated, “I am truly moved by this beautiful commemoration of our journey.”
It was indeed a long journey. It began after Paula passed away from cancer, in July of 2006. Tom realized how many of her prescription medications he was going to have to discard, knowing the steep price of each drug.
“I wondered how horrific it was to dispose of these life saving drugs that helped Paula so much and how many people were without the means to obtain these drugs. It seemed senseless,” he stated in an interview in 2006, when he began his initiative, “There is also the harm to the environment if people attempt to dispose of their unused medication improperly. What we needed was a new path.”
What Pirnstill began to do was have collection days for people to bring unused medication; Pirnstill would then transport the prescription drugs, taking them to a Saginaw clinic that redistributed them. This, however, was highly illegal!
“I was told that if I were stopped, I could be charged with drug trafficking!” he exclaimed, “So we had to put the brakes on that and find ways to make this possible.”
Pirnstill contacted then Representative Tim Moore – now the Farwell Elementary Principal – who believed in what Tom was attempting to accomplish and brought the issue before the Legislators. It was received with lukewarm reception.
“There were a lot of hold ups, haggling from different groups in healthcare, concerning the viability of these drugs,” said Pirnstill, “It died in committee twice, and then Tim was term limited out of office and went to Farwell Schools. I wasn’t sure how this would progress, but I was told that having it die twice wasn’t a good sign.”
Enter Joel Johnson. Rep. Johnson was elected to replace Moore in 2010. Pirnstill immediately approached him with his request, and Rep. Johnson was ready to pick up the fight. This time, with new members in office, the bill performed better, although it took until Johnson’s second term for it to make it to the floor for a vote. There were also criteria for which drugs could be redistributed, since medication degrades if not stored properly. It was decided that unused, prescribed medication from nursing homes and hospitals would be the safest way to insure consumer health. Once these concessions were made, the bill sailed through.
“When I heard the Governor was going to sign the bill I was elated,” he said, “Going to Lansing to watch the bill become law was a dream come true.”
Pirnstill’s tenacity also saw the county develop the drug drop box, which in Clare County is located at the Sheriff’s Department, open 24 hours a day. Drugs that cannot be reused are disposed of in a manner that doesn’t enter the water table, persevering our natural resources and keeping residents healthier.
So what ended that day in Lansing, and again as Pirnstill received Johnson’s plaque, was the culmination of many years of doggedness and determination, in memory of Paula.
“It’s been a long road, but it’s over and I am very pleased at the results,” Pirnstill sighed.