NY State Governor David Paterson announced a new plan to expand health care coverage for thousands of under insured New Yorkers. The plan's centerpiece involves the registration and licensure of informal practitioners who currently operate outside the law and are not regulated.
"NY state, especially our large cities, have thousands of people who perform a variety of tasks that in the past have been legal only for traditional licensed professionals." Paterson explained. "Needless to say, this results in higher costs and decreased access. Many citizens are unable to afford these services because their health care coverage is inadequate or non-existent. So we have started to expand health care services into non-traditional territory."
One example is drug coverage under current programs. Despite numerous attempts to overhaul the system, many people are still unable to afford even the reduced costs, forcing some to choose between the drugs they need and food. "This is unacceptable." says Paterson. "No one should be forced to make such a choice. So we have begun registering street pharmacists in order to meet the need."
Street pharmacists, often disparagingly referred to as "drug dealers", often have years of experience in dispensing medications to those in need. But without proper licensure they can face years in prison if caught.
One such pharmacist is Benny "T-Bone" Santino, 24, of New York City. T-Bone has been operating out of the Lower East Side since 2004, providing his services to hundreds of the needy. Although prior to this week, he was not licensed to practice his trade, he has had several years of hands-on experience in dispensing a variety of medications to those who are unable to afford to go to a traditional practitioner.
One of his clients is "Little John" Doyle, 38, who has been coming to T-Bone for over 2 years. "I been gettin' all my stuff from T-Bone." he says. "He ain't never ripped me off or sold me any bad shit. His stuff is the best, and he knows exactly what I need. Last week, I scored some rock from him, and man, that shit just blew me away, it was so good."
But dealers like T-Bone aren't just providing recreational drugs anymore. Doyle's latest purchase also included a 30-day supply of Lipitor, a cholesterol-reducing medication that T-Bone recommended after asking some questions about Doyle's diet.
"I don't always eat like I should." Doyle admits. "And T-Bone suggested I try a statin drug to get my triglycerides down. Normally I wouldn't be able to afford shit like that, I ain't got no insurance. But T-Bone was able to get it for me for a very low cost. He also started me on lopressor for my blood pressure, which was a little high. That T-Bone really knows his shit, I'll tell you that."
T-Bone recently received his license from NY state, and proudly displays it on the wall of his rented room on 14th street. "Having that little piece of paper really makes a difference." he says. "Now, I'm no longer just some drug dealing scumbag, I'm a licensed professional!"
His years of experience have given T-Bone the practical knowledge he needs to spot problems like Doyle's early on, and to provide the necessary medications to correct them. And T-Bone takes great pride in his work, saying "It makes me feel real good knowing I have helped somebody. Little John will be able to live longer and better, and that's just plain good for business. Dead crackheads don't spend much money, you know what I mean?"
But practitioners like T-Bone want the public to know that they take their responsibilities seriously. "We're not just pushing pills here." he says. "We all specialize in our own fields. I focus on cardiac issues, cause doing rock can put a strain on the heart, and when you're on the pipe you don't always eat like you should, which can cause all kinds of problems down the road. But I don't overstep, if a client has a problem I'm not qualified to handle, I'll refer that client to someone who is."
One such client is Annie Jackson, known as "Little Oral Annie" to her friends. Annie recently visited T-Bone to purchase heroin, and to ask about a lesion on her lower lip. "T-Bone was very concerned about it and sent me over to 16th street to see "Dopey Barney" Andrews, who specializes in dermatology." Andrews was able to remove the troublesome lesion. "He just flicked it right off with his switchblade, and said I should come back in 2 weeks for a follow-up. He gave me some smack for the pain, and I was in and out in like, 5 minutes. If I'd gone to the ER, I'd have sat there for hours, and they wouldn't have given me anything but some damned tylenol."
Jackson and Doyle are just two of the many satisfied customers who think the Governor's health care reforms are exactly what the doctor ordered. "It's about time," says Jackson. "Getting good health care should be a right, not a privilege."