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  Last year, Kaminski helped MedAccess fill more than 64,000 prescriptions valued at $12 million.  

Community Partner

Pharmacist Mary Ann Kaminski does far more than simply fill prescriptions for West Town’s underserved—and she likes it that way

The dozens of chairs are often filled, the waiting room packed with the ethnic spectrum that makes up this West Town neighborhood. People speak English and Polish and Spanish. There are women veiled in Islamic dress. Children and old men. People hurry in from the street or struggle up in walkers. What all have in common, the reason they’ve come to 2611 West Chicago Avenue, is a serious problem with their health and no insurance. They’re here for help. They’re here to see doctors. They’re here to get drugs they can’t possibly pay for.

With few exceptions, almost all end up meeting Mary Ann Kaminski, PHARMD ’07. Kaminski is the director of MedAccess Chicago, the pharmacy at Community Health, and she oversees a unique operation. Among all the free health clinics in Chicago, there is only one that boasts its own pharmacy. Last year, MedAccess filled more than 64,000 prescriptions, valued at $12 million. It’s Kaminski’s job to manage the pharmacy and its team of salaried staff and volunteers. She is constantly on the phone to ensure that shelves are stocked with necessary drugs. She sees patients and consults with doctors. Just as frequently, she leaves her small office that adjoins MedAccess to help others working at Community Health.

“It’s what I love about this job,” Kaminski says. “The clinical component is really important, but there are so many different activities. You’re never bored. It’s one of the reasons the job is such a great fit for me.”
Today, Kaminski is bustling around a bright, spacious room preparing the space for the clinic’s first afternoon of free flu shots. She arranges chairs and tables, chats with the volunteer nurses who will administer the injections, and checks her clipboard. Thirty-four patients have signed up outside.

“Everybody ready? OK then, let’s go.”

She ushers the first client to a nurse by the window and takes the next one herself. He’s a brightly dressed man carrying a guitar and speaks only halting English. Kaminski pulls on latex gloves, sits him in a chair and helps him through the short questionnaire in Spanish. He laughs nervously at the sight of the hypodermic but Kaminski has an easy way with people, a blend of quick eye contact and smiling reassurance.

“That’s it?” he asks, when she tapes on a Band-Aid.

“You’re done. If you can take a chair for a couple of minutes, cinqo minudos, just to make sure you’re fine and not feeling dizzy.”
Her next client is a middle-aged woman eating a peach, and Kaminski offers to read the questions and fill out the form while she finishes her snack.

“Ever had a flu shot before?”


“Any reaction?”

“No. But the church I go to everyone had the flu.”

“This will definitely help. Are you nursing or pregnant?”

“I better not be!”

Kaminski laughs. She plunges the needle into a vial of vaccine, looks up, wriggles her shoulder. “Let your arm dangle. Hang down like this. OK?”


“If you want help with your asthma, we’ve got a nurse from the respiratory association over there. She can give you an inhaler and show you how to work it.”

“Thank you,” says the woman. “God bless you!”

“Everyone is so nice,” says Kaminski, after she’s left. “They’re all so grateful. As a pharmacist, it’s very rewarding to have that interaction.”

More than a prescription filler
That interaction was the major reason Kaminski left her job at Walgreen’s to take a staff position at Community Health. At retail pharmacies, such as Walgreen’s or CVS, communication is often limited to a quick, “Do you have any questions?” It’s rare that a patient comes back to report problems or have a drug treatment altered. Because so many patients who come here suffer from conditions that require long-term drug therapy—diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol—the need for adjusted medication can be especially acute. Community Health makes an extra effort to supply patients, who often don’t speak English, with detailed information and ongoing supervision.

“We spend a lot of time on education,” says Kaminski, “teaching people the right way to take [their] medication. It can be especially important with, say, diabetes…It can be very confusing. We make sure they know what to do about their blood sugar if it gets low. That’s really important.”

Equally important to patients is the fact that Community Health offers all its services and drugs free of charge—unlike federally funded clinics, which offer a sliding scale. Community Health was started in 1993 by Dr. Serafino Garella, then chairman of the Department of Medicine at St. Joseph Hospital. Shocked by the number of people who required medical help but lacked insurance, Garella opened a small storefront clinic with limited hours that served a few hundred patients. Today, Community Health is the largest free clinic in Illinois, providing 27,500 medical and dental visits annually. It is supported by private donations from major companies and hospitals, as well as individuals; thanks to a major philanthropic gift, it owns the spacious modern building in West Town, and operates a second clinic in Englewood.

Beyond doctor and dental visits, services range from nutritional counseling to cooking and exercises classes. There are sessions that meet to help people cope with housing problems, domestic violence and the challenge of caring for the elderly. The waiting room billboard, for instance, advertises a six-week program to train for a 5-K run. Another notice reads, “You are not alone,” and promotes a support group run by a social worker that deals with emotional problems such as depression. “There’s a real stigma to depression,” explains Kaminski, “and patients can feel isolated. Interacting with peers can be very powerful. Whatever we do, we want people to learn to control their own health. We want them to take that learning back into the community.”

Kaminski herself is always looking for ways to expand the offerings here, especially as they relate to patient interaction. Last year, she applied for and received a major grant from the American Pharmaceutical Association to launch an entirely new program—Medication Therapy Management. It formalizes one-on-one patient sessions with the pharmacist or a doctor to monitor any drug regimen and make adjustments as needed.

“That program is a great example of Mary Ann looking at the needs here and finding new ways to address them,” says Judy Haas, executive director of Community Health. “Mary Ann is not just a lovely person, efficient and responsible. She’s also very patient-centered. She’s very hands-on. She’s not someone who’s going to set up shop in the pharmacy and you’ll never see her all day.”

An issue with blood
Such commitment is much prized at Community Health because so much of the organization is volunteer-based. In its two clinics, there are 1,300 physicians, nurses, pharmacists and assorted staff—and only 39 staffers on the payroll.
Kaminski herself started out as a volunteer. A native of downstate Illinois with an undergraduate degree from Loyola, she’d originally hoped to become a doctor, but found her plans thwarted by what she calls “an issue” with blood. The sight of it made her ill.

“I thought it would get better, I gave it a year, but the opposite happened. I’d be in the emergency room at the point of passing out,” Kaminski says. “I’ve got no problem with flu shots, obviously, but even to this day, if someone’s drawing blood I’ve got to get out of there as fast as I can! My mom said, ‘You really like medicine. You should go into pharmacy.’”

Kaminski picked UIC because of its “really good reputation” and found that the College of Pharmacy’s four-year doctoral program went by surprisingly fast. “It was great to concentrate on what I enjoyed. You build friendships with classmates because you’re with the same people all the time for very long days,” she says. Kaminsky particularly enjoyed the College’s fourth-year rotation through clinics and hospitals, took a job at Walgreen’s and filled up what little free time she had with volunteer stints at Community Health. When a staff position opened up, she took it. “What I really wanted was to work more closely with patients, and this offered a much better opportunity,” Kaminski says.

Community Health had just then launched its pioneering pharmacy, modeled after the various food bank programs that solicit groceries in bulk from large retail stores or chains and distribute them through volunteers. The idea was initiated by Haas and greatly facilitated by Sandra Durley, PHARMD ’02, a UIC clinical assistant professor and Community Health board member. Long a passionate advocate of “serving the underserved,” Durley urged UIC Pharmacy Dean Jerry Bauman ’76 pharm, to write a critical “letter of support” to ensure the licensure of the pharmacy. Thanks to that support, UIC became an official “community partner” of the clinic, and Durley assumed an active advisory role for the pharmacy. It was Durley who helped persuade Kaminski to accept the director’s job at MedAccess.

“We’d gone through three directors; there was a lot of turnover,” Durley says. “We needed someone who was skilled at operations but also understood the needs of patients.

“At first, Mary Ann was reluctant to step into the leadership role but, fortunately, she did,” adds Durley. “She’s great, absolutely wonderful. She understands what community health is all about and, like all the staff and volunteers, she works like an energizer bunny!”

When Kaminski is not busy running MedAccess or holding one-on-one sessions with patients, she works with doctors to help them understand a new computer program that details medical records.

Passionate about helping
MedAccess is what’s known as a “close-filled” pharmacy; it only fills prescriptions for clients at Community Health, and patients must see a doctor, nurse or Kaminski that day. Before the pharmacy was established, any medications came from a small closet where doctors stored their free samples. The option of inexpensive drugs from, say, the $4 program at Target or Walmart, was often beyond the resources of patients in this community. The free drugs promoted by pharmaceutical companies and advertised on television—“If you need help call this number”—could prove hard to obtain for those who needed them. “[Those programs] are great,” says Haas, “but it requires time and skill to complete an application for one of the insulin makers. Then you have to wait and hope. It’s time-consuming and challenging for patients whose primary language may not be English or whose literacy level is not as high as the application demands.”

Community Health provides all medication absolutely free and with minimal fuss. Most of the drugs come through so-called “patient assistance programs” at major companies, which provide bulk supplies of their brand-name products. Last year, MedAccess obtained $11 million worth of drugs through these partnerships. Kaminski also has a limited budget to purchase supplies outright—important for certain generics and for conditions that require specialized drugs. Other stock, such as anti-psychotic medication, can be “insanely expensive,” she says, and patients requiring them may be referred to Cook County. To expand treatment options, Kaminski, along with Haas, is always working to expand the supply of drugs from current sources and new partners.

Kaminski does have a life outside Community Health. She lives in Wicker Park with a black lab and a new husband, a cardiology resident at Loyola, whom she met through a classmate at pharmacy school. He’s an avid cook and she’s spending more time in the kitchen. “Pretty basic stuff,” she smiles, “though I’m getting good at soups and sauces and grilling chicken.”

Mostly, she’s totally immersed in her work and passionate about spreading the word, especially when it comes to recruiting new volunteers to donate their time and skills. In an email following one of our visits, she asked: “Could you put a little piece in the article referring to opportunities at Community Health for volunteering in most departments (pharmacy, lab, volunteer doctors/nurses, administration, etc.)? That would be really helpful!”



By Jonathan Black

Photograpy by Evan Sears



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