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CSI Pharmacy stories

I’ve been shot!

For this whole pandemic, I’ve had this admittedly distant relationship with this terrible disease. I certainly mourn the more than half a million COVID deaths in this country. I am troubled by the more than 32 million people who have suffered with the disease. And I am concerned for the long-term impact for those, like some of my colleagues, who continue to experience symptoms months after testing positive.

Still all the deaths, the rising and falling cases, the fatigue and heroism of my colleagues in healthcare, even the fear that makes my friends and the patients I write about desperate for a vaccine—none of this has touched me, not directly, not with any real impact. Until yesterday.

For weeks, everyone I know has been getting vaccinated, while I sit and wait for my turn. I’m not old enough, unhealthy enough, or essential enough. That has been my refrain. Being under 65 and safely tucked away at home and healthy, I don’t yet qualify in the prioritization of vaccine distribution. I’m part of phase 2: everybody else. Until yesterday.

Yesterday, my friend Liz, who is a nurse at the university, called me. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen Liz, so I was surprised when her name appeared on my caller ID. She was working at the vaccine clinic and she wanted to let me know my time had come. “We have vaccine available and no one in line,” she said. “If you can get here by 7:30, you can get one.”

It was 6:00. I jumped into the shower and then into the car. As I drove to the shopping center where the clinic was set up, I realized I was excited about this. After months of biding my time and anticipating at least another couple weeks of waiting, I was finally going to get my shot! I would take pictures. I would send them to friends to announce this thrilling experience. This was cause for celebration!

I danced into the cavernous space arrayed with two-dozen vaccinator stations, a long row of check-in stations, and dozens of friendly people to usher me efficiently through this rite of passage. And though no one could tell, because it was covered by my mask, my smile was huge.

I was able to ask for Liz to give me my shot. My friend and I talked and laughed and caught up, and she took my picture. We were having so much fun that I either lost my vaccine card or she forgot to give it to me. So after my 15 minutes of hanging out to see if I would have an allergic reaction, I had to go back and have her make me a new one.

But this morning, as I lay in bed worrying whether the vague headache I feel is a side effect of the Pfizer vaccine or merely my usual need for morning coffee, it occurs to me that now this virus has actually touched me. (At least an mRNA representation of the virus has.)  It is inside my body. And now my amazing body is doing what needs to be done to make sure I can continue to feel untouched by COVID. I’m so grateful!

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Advocacy CSI Pharmacy stories Health Information

Can’t be Complacent with COVID

Judith Vogel had lovely hands, always perfectly manicured, and beautiful, beautiful eyes with long lashes. She taught fifth grade for most of her life in Montville, New Jersey and saved every letter her daughter Michelle wrote to her from camp as a child.

At 81, she lived alone, but she enjoyed a full social life: playing canasta and mahjong, going to movies, eating out. She had lots of friends. With this year’s pandemic restrictions, though, Judy lost all that. All she could do was sit at home and watch the news and fret. She was afraid she would get sick. And she worried about our country, all the hatred she saw. All the fear.

What she really wanted was to see her grandson get married (his wedding was postponed twice because of the pandemic). And on her birthday, November 3, she wanted to celebrate by voting for Joe Biden. He could turn things around in this country. She was convinced.

Judy will enjoy neither of these dreams. She passed away on August 20. She died, as she feared, of COVID-19.

It was a Thursday morning. Michelle hadn’t been able to get her mom on the phone for two days. She threw some things in the car and drove the 300 miles to South Florida. She made it in record time. On the way, she called her cousin who lived closer and asked her to go check. They found Judy on the floor. She had probably lain there for a full day.

When the paramedics arrived, they decided she was OK. She was conscious. She didn’t have a fever. She wasn’t coughing. They didn’t want to risk taking this elderly lady to the hospital where she might catch COVID.

When Michelle got there, her mom was sitting comfortably in a chair, sipping fluids. She made an appointment for Judy to be seen by her primary care provider the following morning. Judy had a history of urinary tract infections (UTIs). Michelle assumed that’s what was making her confused and fatigued. That and the fact that she’d lain on the floor for the last 24 hours.

Michelle, who serves as CSI Pharmacy’s Vice President of Patient Advocacy and Provider Relations, took her mom to the doctor and got her started on treatment. But that afternoon, when Judy was too weak to stand up from a chair, Michelle knew something more serious was going on.

She had to call 911. It was the only way to get her mom to the emergency room. But she couldn’t go with her; no one is allowed in hospitals these days except the patient. That evening when she called the hospital, she learned that Judy had tested positive for COVID. Judy was in ICU. Soon she would be on a ventilator. Michelle would never see her mom again.

“I was shocked,” Michelle says. “I thought she had a UTI. I didn’t put the symptoms together. I never thought of COVID.”

Looking back, Michelle realizes there were a lot of signs she missed when she talked to her mom every day. She thought, for example, that her mom’s decreased appetite was related to the isolation and depression Judy was feeling. But maybe she wasn’t eating because she couldn’t taste or smell. These are symptoms of COVID.

Judy complained of headaches and muscle aches, but she didn’t have a fever. She just thought she was coming down with a cold. When Michelle talked to her mom’s best friend, though, she said Judy had been coughing for weeks. Maybe she’d been sick for weeks, but no one realized it. Judy didn’t like to bother anyone.

The thought of her mother lying on the floor alone all day and all night before she was finally found will never leave Michelle. But even as she moves through her own grief, Michelle wants her family’s experience to serve as a lesson for others.

“Isolation is hard on everyone,” she says, “but it is especially difficult for our seniors. It affects us both physically and emotionally. It can be really horrible. But as much as people want to be more socially active and get back to their lives, this virus is going to go on for years. And the more complacent we are, the more severe it will be. We can’t assume COVID hasn’t affected anyone in our personal circle. We still need to take precautions. We need to be safe.”

Secondly, she wants people to be aware that COVID is a threat that is with us everywhere, and that coronavirus should be at the top of our minds at all times.

“We don’t really understand all the symptoms of COVID-19,” she says. “A lot of patients never present with a fever, but they have all these other symptoms: severe headaches, body pain, diarrhea, rashes, weakness, tingling toes…all kinds of things. We need to understand that there are many more symptoms than just the cough and fever that you always hear about. And if you are feeling bad, you need to get yourself to the doctor.”

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Advocacy CSI Pharmacy stories

Do you have a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan?

(Brandpoint) – If you’re concerned about getting COVID-19, you have good cause.

According to the latest COVID-19 Data Tracker from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. alone has already logged over 16.3 million cases and the overall weekly hospitalization rate is at its highest since the pandemic began.

While it’s critical to stay informed about the spread of the virus and know how to protect yourself and others, many people may not realize how important it is to be prepared with an action plan should an outbreak occur in your community or household.

The better informed you are, the more empowered you can feel about coping with the pandemic. 


COVID-19 Preparedness Tips from a Professional Patient Advocate Who was Hospitalized

Professionally, Michelle Vogel works in patient advocacy and provider relations, helping other patients navigate the healthcare system. That experience has taught her that sometimes, patients must be proactive and push to find their best options. Preparing as much as possible in advance is paramount.

Have a testing plan. Know the symptoms and if you have been exposed or experience symptoms, know where to get tested in your area, and know how you’ll isolate or self-quarantine if necessary. Relevant information is listed and regularly updated on the CDC website

Get to know the hospitals in your area. Look up local and regional hospitals in your area and make a plan for where you would seek treatment if you needed to be hospitalized. If you want access to investigational treatment candidates, websites like www.StopStorm.com can help you find research hospitals in your region as they may be enrolling people in clinical trials. 

Ask about treatments and clinical trials. Everyone reacts differently to the coronavirus. As such, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to treatment. If you’re hospitalized with COVID-19, ask about treatment options and if you may be eligible to enroll in a clinical trial. Since eligibility criteria can change, it’s important to keep asking your hospital and doctor about clinical trials daily.

Throughout this crisis, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries have worked tirelessly to develop vaccines and therapeutics to help overcome this pandemic. However, with over 4,000 COVID-19 clinical trials listed on www.clinicaltrials.gov and the healthcare system almost overwhelmed, the burden to get access to clinical trials is now often falling to the patient or their families who may need to proactively plan, ask and engage.

Clinical trials are crucial in the development of innovative medicines and participating in a clinical trial helps advance potential treatment options for people in need.

“Typically, hospital researchers will discuss clinical trial options proactively with patients who may be eligible to enroll,” said Vogel. “I think that there is so much research going on right now, patients and their families have to be more vocal and engaged in asking about potential clinical trials than ever before.”


What Happens When the Professional Patient Advocate Becomes the Patient? 

The expression, ‘when it rains, it pours,’ doesn’t even begin to capture how torrential Michelle Vogel’s experience was with COVID-19. It was the midst of Florida’s hurricane season, the virus was surging in the state and her mom was just diagnosed with COVID-19 in Boynton Beach, Florida, days prior.

While Michelle, a 53-year-old Jacksonville, Florida, resident, waited to get her COVID-19 test, delayed due to heavy storms, her symptoms were getting worse. After her test came back as positive, she went to the research hospital in her area and was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and was treated with convalescent plasma, remdesivir and steroids. Her condition deteriorated and she developed a hyper-response of the immune system that causes harmful inflammation, known as cytokine storm. The condition affects almost 90% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and is a leading cause of COVID-19 progression, use of a ventilator and death.

Vogel asked about clinical trials and learned that the Mayo Clinic was one of the sites enrolling patients in a Phase 3 study evaluating lenzilumab, an investigational treatment candidate designed to combat cytokine storm. She pushed to be enrolled in the clinical trial.

The Unsung Heroes

“Patients participating in clinical trials are too often the unsung heroes in the development of innovative treatments and the pandemic has heightened the importance of patient advocacy in the clinical trial process,” said Cameron Durrant, MD, MBA, chief executive officer of Humanigen, the biopharmaceutical company developing lenzilumab as a potential COVID-19 treatment. “The global biopharmaceutical industry has made tremendous strides to develop viable COVID-19 vaccines, but we need treatment options for all patients while we wait for widespread safe and effective vaccine use and availability.”

For Michelle Vogel, her condition improved rapidly after participating in the clinical trial. She had read that lenzilumab could help normalize her C-reactive protein and that is what she experienced. Just days later, she was weaned off supplemental oxygen and discharged from the hospital.

“If I hadn’t pushed to see what other options were out there, I don’t know if the lenzilumab trial would’ve been offered,” she said. “Because of my professional experience as a patient advocate, I knew to keep on pushing to see what my options were. But there are many patients who don’t even know that they can ask what their treatment options are.”

Sadly, however, Michelle’s mom passed away from COVID-19 while Michelle was in her own COVID-19 battle. “I tried hard to advocate for the best treatments for my mom but there were no clinical trial options at her hospital and it’s difficult to even think about whether she would have survived if she had access to a clinical trial.”

To learn more and to find a lenzilumab clinical trial site near you, visit www.StopStorm.com.

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Advocacy CSI Pharmacy stories

CSI Pharmacy’s Plasma Donor Superhero

Maddie was in high school when she developed juvenile dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease of the muscles that made her so weak she couldn’t walk. Bill developed myasthenia gravis, another autoimmune neuromuscular disease, after having anesthesia for bypass surgery. Amanda and her daughter have immune deficiency diseases that make them susceptible to all kinds of infections. Immune globulin (IG) has been a life-saving therapy for all of these individuals.

IG is one of a number of treatments that can only be made from donated human plasma. This year, as a result of coronavirus restrictions, plasma therapeutics companies have experienced a significant drop in donations, which will limit supplies of plasma products such as IG by the end of the year. For patients, this is their worst fear. It means they may not be able to get the medications that allow them to live a normal life.

When Justin McNeill learned that plasma donations were down by as much as 40%, he thought of patients like Maddie, Bill, Amanda, and her daughter. Much of CSI Pharmacy’s business involves providing home infusion services for those who depend on IG therapy. As a delivery technician for CSI Pharmacy, it’s Justin’s job to pack up shipments of immune globulin and the supplies needed to administer it and make sure it all gets to the patient’s home in time for their infusion. 

In the spring, CSI Pharmacy joined the Immunoglobulin National Society in an effort to raise awareness about plasma donation and to inspire more healthy donors to contribute. As part of that effort, the company initiated an internal contest to encourage employees to become plasma donors. Justin was among the first to respond.

“We were told that with all the coronavirus restrictions, people aren’t donating plasma as much,” Justin says. “That means patients aren’t going to be able to get the medicine they need. I figured I’m able to give, so there’s no reason not to.”

Justin started donating in May and has given twice a week ever since—the maximum weekly donations allowed. To date, he has donated plasma 24 times. And even though he works full time and goes to school in the evenings, showing up at the BPL Plasma donation center is part of his weekly routine. He plans to keep on giving as long as they’ll let him.

Justin may have run away with this contest, but he’s not the only CSI Pharmacy employee to participate in the plasma donor drive. Eleven other members of the staff have also donated at least twice. (Regulations require two donations before the plasma can be used to make plasma protein therapies like IG.)

The rules governing who can qualify as a plasma donor are very strict. Justin, who is 24 years old and healthy, had no problem qualifying. When several other employees attempted to donate, however, they were turned away because they have chronic health conditions or other restrictions. This only made Justin more committed to continue donating.

“I knew a lot of the people here in the office couldn’t donate because of various health issues or medications, so I said, why not me?”

“Justin is very modest,” says James Sheets, CEO of CSI Pharmacy. “I know he doesn’t like to call attention to himself. But for us he is a superhero. We are pleased that our employees take this so seriously and are willing to donate plasma. And we’re extremely proud of Justin for his ongoing commitment to making plasma donation a part of his life.”

For Justin, it’s all about Maddie, Bill, Amanda and her daughter, and others for whom he packs up the products and supplies for their home infusions. He urges anyone who qualifies to consider becoming a plasma donor.

“We’re probably about to get hit with a really bad shortage of IG products,” he says. “Our patients need this medicine that’s made from human plasma. We’ve got a lot of people who are really sick and really need this medicine. Even donating just twice will help save lives. You can make a big difference.”

As the winner of CSI Pharmacy’s Plasma Donation Incentive Program, Justin McNeill was presented with a trophy and a monetary gift during a ceremony in September.

Find a plasma donation center near you.

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Advocacy CSI Pharmacy stories Health Information

Be an Advocate

COVID-19 was the last thing on Michelle Vogel’s mind the day she raced to South Florida to care for her elderly mother who had fallen in her home. Her mom hadn’t been feeling well that week. She thought she had a urinary tract infection again. As it turned out, Judy Vogel had COVID pneumonia. She died a week later in ICU.

Michelle is the head of CSI Pharmacy’s Patient Advocacy team. Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has tirelessly insisted that everyone needs to wear a face mask, wash their hands or use hand sanitizer, and maintain social distancing. And she walks the talk. She knows that the lives of the immune compromised patients she cares for depend on this.

It never occurred to her, however, that she would need to protect herself from her own mother. Judy lived alone. She rarely left the house. And she took precautions. No one knows how she might have contracted this highly contagious condition, but she gave it to her daughter.

Five days after learning of her mom’s diagnosis, Michelle herself tested positive for COVID. As someone who lives with several rare, chronic conditions, she knew her chances of developing severe COVID pneumonia were high, and over the next few days she did become very sick.

“I’ve had migraine headaches, but they’re nothing compared to COVID headaches,” Michelle says. “And I’ve never been so tired. I’ve never had so much pain in my legs that they just give out. The coughing is worse than any bronchitis. And then it’s just odd to lose your smell and taste. My stomach, the diarrhea, the chills and fevers…it just hits every part of you. I even have skin lesions.”

With the support of daily telemedicine checks, Michelle battled the disease at home for a week. Her doctors started her on a corticosteroid (prednisone), which has been shown to reduce lung inflammation in COVID patients. They tried azithromycin (Z-Pak), which has antiviral properties, although it has not been reliably tested in COVID patients.

They also ordered cough suppressant medicine and a portable nebulizer that helped her to breathe in a bigger dose of medication to open her lung passages. From an online supplier, she ordered a pulse oximeter (a medical device that fits over your finger) to be sure her blood oxygen levels stayed adequate. Still, she ended up in the hospital with COVID pneumonia.

“There’s a lot doctors can’t see on a telemedicine call,” she says. “They don’t see you when you’re gasping for air. They can’t listen to your lungs to hear how congested you are. And how do you get a chest x-ray or labs drawn when you’re too exhausted to drag yourself out of the house?”

Michelle is the person many rare disease patients turn to for advice on navigating the maze that is our healthcare system, overcoming health insurance obstacles, and accessing the expensive therapies that keep them alive. She is an expert who loves sorting out these challenges.

So during the week she spent in the hospital, Michelle became her own advocate. She knew, for example, that remdesivir (an antiviral medication) and convalescent plasma (blood serum with antibodies from COVID patients who have recovered from the disease) had shown some positive results, so she requested these. She also asked about other treatments and was offered a clinical trial to test a new biological therapy.

While no one expects to come down with COVID—or any other disease, for that matter—Michelle’s experience shows the importance of educating yourself about whatever condition you find yourself burdened with. Know what drugs and therapies are used to treat the disease and ask if they might be right for you (or your loved one). And if you don’t understand what the doctors are saying, ask questions until you do.

“COVID-19 has affected all of us in one way or another,” Michelle says. “I have stayed vigilant in wearing my mask and isolating to stay safe. I never imagined that it would touch my family, take my mother, and leave me battling with COVID pneumonia. Please stay safe so this doesn’t happen to you or someone you love. And if it does, be an advocate for yourself or your loved one.”

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It’s Our Turn

As a member of CSI Pharmacy’s patient advocacy team, it’s my job to create materials for our campaign to increase plasma donations. We’re working to encourage people, especially family members and friends of those who rely on immune globulin therapy, to roll up their sleeves and give back by giving their plasma.

The coronavirus crisis has slowed donations of this life-saving serum from which immune globulin (IG) therapies are made. Together with the Immune Globulin National Society (IgNS), CSI Pharmacy is supporting the #ItsMyTurn campaign, encouraging those of us who are not on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 to consider this opportunity to be a hero in a different way.

While I sat safely socially isolating in my home, organizing webinars, writing patient stories, and creating social media memes, this voice kept nagging at the back of my head: You could donate, it said.

I could, I thought. But the closest plasma donation center is an hour away from where I live in Central Virginia. But it would take me half the day to donate. But I’d have to do it on a regular basis; a one-time shot won’t work.

Still, I just couldn’t sit here urging others to do this important work if I weren’t willing to get off my “buts” and do my part too. I work remotely all the time anyway, and I could bring my laptop and check social media while I donated. I could commit to donating once a week. So I made an appointment and started donating.

But I’m not the only member of the CSI Pharmacy staff getting out of the workplace to donate plasma. Our leadership is making this a movement by encouraging all employees to become plasma donor heroes. And CSI Pharmacy CEO James Sheets is leading the way to the donation center.

“This is an opportunity for us to give back to our community of patients who depend on this life-saving therapy,” James says. “Our patients are our family, and we can’t let them down. We have to do what we can to be sure they can get the treatments they need.”

For my colleagues who work at the pharmacy headquarters in Wake Village, Texas, there is a certified plasma donation center just three miles away in Texarkana. CSI Pharmacy team members are given time to donate during working hours. Those who donate receive a special #ItsMyTurn t-shirt. James has even created a contest to encourage employees to make donating a routine part of their week.

“Our team members are motivated to this cause, because they’re so connected to our patients and their therapies,” James says. “They know how challenging it can be for folks when IG products are in short supply.”

With seven donations under his belt so far, delivery technician Justin McNeill is leading in donations among the CSI Pharmacy employees. He’s grateful for the time to give, but for him it’s not really about the contest or the modest payment he receives as a donor. 

“If there’s a shortage on our IG products, our patients aren’t going to get the medicine they need,” Justin says. “I figure I’ve got it to give, so I might as well.”

Roxanne Ward, CSI Pharmacy’s Regional Nursing Supervisor in Little Rock, Arkansas got three of her nurses together to make an event of their trip to the plasma donation center. Knowing that plasma donations are down right now is what made her want to take this extra step for her patients.

“I treat so many people who rely on this,” she says. “I felt like donating is the least I can do to help the people I care for.”

Not everyone at CSI Pharmacy will qualify to donate plasma, though. Eligibility guidelines are strict, so those with certain medical conditions, those who take certain medications, or those who may have been exposed certain blood-borne pathogens won’t be able to give. These team members can still participate in our program, however, by recruiting someone else to donate in their place.

“I really wanted to be a plasma donor because it’s so important that we have enough plasma for those who need these therapies,” says VP of Patient Advocacy and Provider Relations Michelle Vogel. “Unfortunately, I’ve used blood products (platelets) in the last year, so I don’t qualify. So I asked my family to help.”

Michelle’s brother-in-law, who was among the four members of her family to volunteer, knows intimately how important IG therapies can be. His mother has myasthenia gravis and has been treated for many years with IVIG.

“We’re really proud of the response from our team members,” James says. “It’s an important effort, and we’d like to invite other businesses and organizations to join this effort to short-circuit an IG shortage by encouraging their employees to donate plasma. Together we can make a difference.”

#ItsMyTurn

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CSI Pharmacy stories

Therapies Unique as Fingerprints

When James Sheets and his partners decided to create a business that focused on home immune globulin therapy, they didn’t really know what to call it. The traditional dispensing pharmacy they already operated had a name: North Heights Pharmacy. But they felt this local focus would limit this new venture, which they expected to expand beyond their current Texas/Arkansas/Louisiana area.

“When I was presented with the challenge of coming up with a name, I didn’t really have any ideas,” James says.

At the time in late 2013, specialty pharmacies were just starting to emerge from other fields of pharmacy, so James decided “specialty” would be part of the name. He also wanted the word “clinical” to be in there, because with a team of outstanding pharmacists with decades of infusion experience, he and his business partner Barry Buls felt it was their commitment to providing comprehensive clinical services that set this new business apart.

Then one night in the middle of the night James woke up from a dead sleep with a picture of the whole plan.

“I sat up in bed and said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re going to call this thing Clinical Specialty Infusions, and we’ll use the name CSI Pharmacy,’” he says. “People will remember it, because they will think of the TV show Crime Scene Investigation.”

The logo would be a thumbprint overlaid with a magnifying glass, also tying in the idea of the detective. And the motto would be “Individualized therapies designed to be as unique as you,” because, like one’s fingerprint, CSI Pharmacy’s treatments are designed for the specific needs of each patient.

CSI Pharmacy is now licensed in 39 states and the District of Columbia with plans to acquire licenses in all 50 states. North Heights Pharmacy is still part of the business, filling retail prescriptions in Texarkana, Arkansas.  The headquarters, which includes an infusion center, are based at a second physical location in Wake Village, Texas. Soon CSI plans to expand their individualized care by acquiring new bricks-and-mortar locations in at least two additional states.

“We are truly focused on making a difference in people’s lives,” James says. “And I’ve always said if we take care of patients, if we are there for the prescribers, and if we take good care of our employees, the rest will take care of itself.”

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Caring for and about Patients

When Michelle Vogel joined CSI Pharmacy as Vice President for Advocacy and Provider Relations in 2016, one of the first things she did was take owner James Sheets to a support group for myositis patients.

From the very beginning, CSI had been committed to caring for patients, not just filling prescriptions. But until this point, the only interactions the pharmacists, nurses, and staff had with patients was when they provided their infusions.

“He didn’t really know about working with patient communities, so I took him to participate in The Myositis Association support group in Houston,” Michelle says. “That’s when James became dedicated to helping patient communities.”

“I went there to talk about IVIG ,” James says. “I went in there thinking this will be great. I can really help this community learn a lot. But when I heard some of what patients were experiencing, I realized I had so much more to learn. That’s really where my passion for building relationships with the rare disease community came from.”

James and Michelle and some other staff started making a habit of attending support group meetings, not just for myositis, but for myasthenia gravis and other rare diseases that are part of CSI’s patient community.

These support groups are a place where people who live with a rare disease can get together with others who have the same disease. At the meetings, patients and caregivers share their experiences of dealing with the challenges of things like symptoms, treatments, and living with chronic or disabling conditions. When they participate in these gatherings, the CSI staff gain valuable insight into what their patients deal with on a daily basis. It makes a difference in how the pharmacy works with patients.

Knowing more about myositis as a disease, for example, and the sorts of challenges patients face in dealing with it gives CSI much more ammunition in helping them access treatments, most of which are used “off label” and can be very expensive.

“When we’re working to get approvals from insurance companies,” Michelle says, “we’re able to ensure that the patient meets the diagnostic criteria of their individual health insurance plan. There is no reason why these lifesaving therapies should be denied when we can submit it to insurance appropriately.”

Having an advocacy program also supports the physicians who prescribe treatments like immune globulin therapy, infused and injected immune suppressants, and cutting-edge biologic treatments.

In addition to advocating for patient access with insurance providers, Michelle can also help people find copay assistance programs to help cover the expenses insurance doesn’t. There are also some financial assistance programs that can help patients with extraordinary medical expenses. And if a person’s insurance is too restrictive, she can help them choose a plan that works more to their advantage.

And then there are the times when CSI just needs to bend over backwards to get the patient their treatments. Michelle tells a story, for example, of an uninsured patient who had been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis. She had applied for social security disability and was waiting for approval, so she would be eligible for Medicare, but it would be three or four months before her hearing with a judge. Meanwhile, she needed IVIG treatment to live.

Michelle was sure the judge would approve the patient for social security disability, making her eligible for Medicare. She also knew Medicare would cover the treatment retroactively. So, CSI agreed to provide all the patient’s medications while she awaited approval. Michelle even contacted the patient’s physicians to ask if they would waive their fees during that waiting period. (They could always bill Medicare later.) Three months later, the patient was approved, and the physicians and the pharmacy all got paid.

“We had to pay for everything in advance, but in the end it all worked out,” Michelle says. “I don’t know of any other specialty pharmacy that would do that. There’s that trust, that extra step for patients. That’s really what you need, because if you do things right, it all comes back tenfold.”

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CSI: A Special Specialty Pharmacy

“I’d always had a dream of owning a little mom-and-pop pharmacy,” says James Sheets, CEO of CSI Pharmacy. He’d had a number of jobs working in both big box pharmacies and smaller shops in and around his hometown of Texarkana, Texas, and he preferred a small, local business where he and his staff could get to know their customers.

In 2013, James’s dream came true when he and two other pharmacist friends, Barry Buls and Mark McMurry, had the opportunity to partner up and purchase North Heights Pharmacy, a shop that had been in business in Texarkana since 1975.

North Heights was doing some retail sales, but they also provided medications for some local hospice services. They also did compounding, mixing up specialized medications for individualized patient needs. The plan, when James took over as chief pharmacist, was to build on these services, with outstanding customer service as their main goal.

In a previous job, however, James had started a successful home infusion program. The service provided treatments such as intravenous antibiotics, cardiac medications, and intravenous nutrition. It was a way for patients to receive these intensive treatments at home, rather than having to go to the hospital or stay in a nursing home.

He wasn’t really trying to get back into home infusion services at North Heights, but one day James got a call from a local neurologist who had several patients who were desperate for someone to provide intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy in the home. These were people with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) who had been cut off from this service because the big national pharmacy chain that once provided it had decided it wasn’t getting paid enough by the patients’ health insurance.

“These were patients who were stable on IVIG, who had been doing well for years, yet they were losing their home infusion services,” James says. “Naturally we wanted to take care of them. Some of these patients we knew from our previous experience, so we already had a personal relationship with them.”

So James and his partners decided to go all in with home infusions, especially IVIG. They made some infrastructure changes to add the necessary facilities at North Heights, and they hired Tracy Knox, a nurse who specializes in infusion therapies, to work just with these patients. They also hired several other staff members who were experienced with the processes necessary to administer infusions, including pharmacy technician Natalie Edwards, IV technician Jet Richardson, intake coordinator Vanessa Noble, and Abe Cardenas, who serves as warehouse manager.

The pharmacy also needed a new name, one that more accurately reflected this new focus.  Clinical Specialty Infusions was born and immediately became CSI Pharmacy.

“What really sets us apart is that we’ve developed clinical programs around the different types of patients we serve,” James says.

In addition to people with CIDP, CSI also has patient communities for those with myositis and myasthenia gravis, both rare, autoimmune neuromuscular diseases. A new patient community is also developing with people who live with pemphigus and pemphigoid, which are rare autoimmune diseases that affect the skin and/or mucus membranes.

In caring for these patients, James and his team don’t just take an order from a physician and give the customer the medication. CSI hires or contracts with infusion nurses who know how best to administer immune globulin and how to monitor the patient during and after the treatment. More than that, though, they work with the whole CSI team, including physicians, pharmacists, patient advocates, and insurance staff to be sure the patient receives the individualized care they need.

More importantly, because staff spend so much time with patients, both administering the medications and working to get insurance coverage for these expensive treatments, they get to know them as friends not just patients. Staff and patients exchange personal stories, check in with each other, and share the success when the patient’s condition improves.

Infusion nurse Tracy Knox, for example, has been working with James since the beginning. “I can see the difference I’ve made in people’s lives, and I like that,” she says. “I’ve been doing infusions for this one patient for many years now. She used to have to use a wheelchair, but now I see her in Walmart and she’ll say, ‘Look! I can walk with a cane now!’”

Over the past few years, CSI has grown from a small, hometown pharmacy into a thriving nationwide specialty pharmacy with two physical locations and plans for more and a mission to make sure every patient receives the care she or he needs regardless of how much they get paid for it.