Nursing homes in Oklahoma will soon be able to donate unused prescription drugs to state residents who can't afford them. Under a new law that takes effect in January, any drug manufacturer, health care provider or individual can donate leftover, unopened, unexpired medications to participating pharmacies when patients relocate or die. The drugs then will be redistributed to the medically indigent.

Currently, unused prescriptions must be destroyed or sent home with a patient. "We were seeing the dumping of millions of dollarsin medications at nursing homes," says Oklahoma state Representative Darrell Gilbert, who authored the bill. A 2000 report from the state Center for Health and Policy Research estimated that recycling unused drugs could save $2.3 million to $7 million annually. In addition, Gilbert says, the new law "gives greater access to the care that people need."

The law expands two pilot programs in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties that were created in 2001. The permanent program also includes chemotherapy drugs and unopened injection medications, including treatment for diseases such as diabetes and mental illnesses. The new law exempts from liability the nursing homes, doctors and patients who donate the drugs.

Other states have "some moderate types of similar programs," Gilbert says, but Oklahoma's will be the first on its scale. And, Gilbert adds, the program offers one other advantage. "It's one answer to the question about importation of drugs from Canada."