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PALM LATITUDES

HEARTBEAT : Apothecary Angels

March 13, 1994|R. Daniel Foster

"Nobody leaves here without their medication." That's not a threat; that's a promise from several local pharmacies that cater to AIDS patients. These unconventional drugstores provide more than AZT and DDI: They offer compassion, information, even credit--they will carry costs for patients until insurance companies pay up.

Vee Mell opened Vee's Pharmacy in West Hollywood in 1988 after watching the disease strike clients she served while working at a nearby drugstore. Ninety percent of her business is now HIV-related.

"Somebody has to do it," says Mell, who sits on boards of several local AIDS organizations. "My husband screams at me because we lose so much money"--about $100,000 a year from unpaid Medi-Cal claims, she says. AIDS-related losses amount to about 10% of her business, she says. Medi-Cal and other insurers typically will not pay for a drug prescribed for non-approved uses.

"The larger expenditure is emotional--I lose 40% of my client base each year," she says. "I really miss those guys." Mell opened a Vee's in Beverly Hills last year and recently built a sterile IV room for her West Hollywood location.

At Pasadena's Care Rite pharmacy, Jim Avedikian stocks injectable drugs that are not usually carried by major drug stores, operates a videotape library, does free computerized research for clients and distributes a newsletter that discusses new treatments and clinical trials and dispels or confirms rumors about breakthroughs. About 75% of his business here and at a sister store in Long Beach that he operates with partner Paul Stephan is HIV-related.

"Jim was the first person who gave me some hope, and he hooked me into a wide network of support," says Nancy Busacca, 45, who tested positive last year after contracting HIV from heterosexual sex. "I walked into the pharmacy devastated, looking like death warmed over. Jim took one look at my face and said, 'Would you like to talk?' "

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