When former Reidsville resident Gina Upchurch wrote her master’s paper in public health about difficulties many older adults have paying for prescriptions, she did not expect it to lead to the non-profit she runs.
“My project for the graduate school in the public health program became the business I have been running for 26 years,” Upchurch said, noting that anniversary is June 23.
Founded in 1994, Senior PharmAssist helps seniors with limited incomes improve the quality of their lives. The organization helps Medicare beneficiaries understand and maximize their medical and prescription coverage.
Most recently, Senior PharmAssist has introduced new programs to assist its participants in dealing with various issues related to stay-at-home orders and income concerns.
Born in Durham a block from where she now lives, Upchurch is widely recognized for her expertise in geriatric care.
At the time of her birth, her father, Rivers, was a Naval dentist at Camp LeJuene. Her mother, Mary Anne, moved to Durham with her 16-month-old son, Gib, to live with her parents, while awaiting Gina’s birth. After Rivers completed his Naval assignment, the family moved to Reidsville where he opened a dental practice.
In 1981, Upchurch graduated from Reidsville Senior High School and enrolled as a pharmacy student at UNC-Chapel Hill, receiving her bachelor of science degree in 1986.
Choosing her career came naturally, she said. Her grandfather, Bill Upchurch, was a beloved Smithfield pharmacist and some of
her summers were spent going to the pharmacy with him. Her maternal grandmother, Anne Bass, was a nurse who later in life had
trouble with some of her medications causing her more harm than good.
“The combination of two things — some people can be beloved and very helpful in their professions and sometimes individuals are overmedicated or inappropriately medicated,” led to her wanting to address both those issues.
While pursuing her pharmacy degree, her grandmothers’ problems made her think about geriatrics and medication appropriateness.
After earning her degree, Upchurch joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Botswana from 1987 to 1989.
As a result of her work there, Upchurch has what she terms her “chosen family” in Botswana. In fact, when COVID-19 hit, she was there visiting two young men and their families with whom she had developed a relationship.
“I am in touch with them about every day,” Upchurch said, noting she goes back every two to three years.
Following her Peace Corps assignment, she returned home to do her residency in geriatric practice at UNC, then entered the university’s public health school for her master’s degree. She also was a summer intern for the Council for Senior Citizens in Durham.
When she started interviewing people in Durham for her master’s degree paper, Upchurch said “it became evident that people needed help paying for their medicine and some people needed help managing their medicine.”
The paper, “Access to Medications for Low-Income North Carolina Citizens: Without Funds, How Can They Follow Doctor’s Orders?” was published in June 1994 in the N.C. Medical Journal.
The paper also helped her obtain start-up grant funding from the Duke Endowment to help her open Senior PharmAssist, now in the Durham Center for Senior Life in downtown Durham.
“There were just two of us to begin with for a while,” Upchurch said. “Now, there are 10 of us and lots of volunteers.”
Initially, they planned to focus on medications, but it soon became clear their participants needed assistance in other areas.
“That’s how we started Tailored Community Referral or Care Management,” Upchurch said. “We help people navigate to other services and programs that would improve their quality of life.”
In 2006, when Medicare initiated a prescription drug benefit, Senior PharmAssist added Medicare insurance counseling.
To date in this fiscal year that ends June 30, Upchurch said 2,500 people have been helped.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Upchurch said her organization became even more concerned about their participants.
“We started making telephone reassurance calls,” she said. “Right now, everything we do now is virtual — over the phones or videos.”
Participants are contacted, at their request, weekly, biweekly or monthly, to check on how they are doing and to link them to services if they need them. Food insecurity is a major concern of these participants, and many are experiencing isolation, loneliness and mental health issues.
Upchurch’s group works with counseling resources, such as the Baptist Aging Ministry and/or the Stephen Ministries where they just have someone to talk to. They also provide them 800-numbers they can call for various other issues they incur.
In recent weeks, Senior PharmAssist has mailed 1,400 masks made by local volunteers and soon will send out thermometers obtained through a special grant.
Although her organization only serves Durham County residents, Upchurch hopes eventually to expand to other communities. They had recently started talks with the N.C Office of Rural Health but that is on hold for now because of the pandemic.
“The importance of relationships is a prime concern with COVID,” Upchurch said, noting she facilitates a group of agencies working to help people with lots of different issues.
“We don’t help everybody in Durham, but we are working with other agencies trying to help as many people as possible,” she said.
Having a diverse group of people doing this work is vital, she said.
“It is very important that Senior PharmAssist be in relationship with these other agencies because they are trusted in this community. We try to be a diverse group so we can address racism at the individual and community levels.
“We know this virus (COVID-19) disproportionately affects people of color, so we need leaders that are grounded in those communities. Particularly with the racial tension in our country, it is incredibly critical that we pay attention to the leadership of our organization so we represent the community as much as possible.”
One of those leaders on whom Upchurch depends is one she has known most of her life. Que Tucker was Upchurch’s junior high and high school basketball coach. Now she is the Commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association.
“We need her leadership in this country,” Upchurch said. “She has been a very inspirational leader for years and she has influenced me a lot.”
When she’s not working, Upchurch enjoys exercising. She also performs with “United Voices of Praise” at her church, United Church of Chapel Hill. The choir also has members from Fisher Memorial Holiness Church. The group has performed in Reidsville.
Upchurch also enjoys gardening and has two small gardening beds filled with tomatoes, basil and lettuce in her limited yard space.
On weekends, Upchurch travels to Reidsville to see her parents and hang out with other family members in the area.
“I could not be more fortunate than to have the family and friends I have,” she said. “I consider myself very blessed.”