Pharmaceutical startup DiRx is tackling accessibility in both senses of the word.
In the sense of availability, the New Jersey-based startup is working to literally make medication more accessible to patients. The company boasts more than 1,400 FDA-approved drugs, sourced directly from manufacturers, and shipped free to 49 states and Washington DC. Unless it’s an extremely esoteric drug — like something used, for example, in epilepsy research and in clinical trials — there’s a good chance that customers will find what they need, and probably cheaply, from DiRx.
In the sense of disability, the mission is multifaceted. The first, most obvious advantage is that the mail order nature of DiRx means that a person with a disability does not have to travel to a community pharmacy to get their medicines. The direct operation is not trivial, as the logistical and practical considerations of traveling are often insurmountable. The second advantage is financial. Since DiRx works directly with manufacturers to provide generic labeled drugs, they can pass the savings on to customers. This means that medicines are much less expensive than elsewhere, a crucial advantage for the majority of the disabled. Since many people with disabilities rely on drugs on a daily basis for comfort and survival, affordability (and availability) can literally mean the difference between life and death.
“We founded DiRx as a digital pharmacy with a national presence to disrupt and eliminate many middlemen in the drug distribution chain [by bringing] the costs down and [make medication] more accessible to ordinary Americans,” DiRx chief executive Satish Srinivasan recently told me over the phone. “We buy directly from manufacturers, we skip all the major drug wholesalers, we skip the PPE [pharmacy benefit managers], and come up with simple, cash-based pricing that is much more affordable than what you see on the market. It brings justice to people who have different levels of insurance or lack of insurance.”
In a press release issued just after Christmas last year, DiRx announced that it had raised $10 million in Series A funding. This followed news from a year ago this month that the company has secured $5.75 million in venture capital funds.
The beginnings of DiRx stem from Srinivasan’s more than a quarter of a century in the generic pharmaceutical industry. It always bothered him that the players’ economies and business models were never aligned with customers’ interests from a financial point of view. While he’s not against companies trying to make money, the problem as he sees it is: everybody tries to get their share. Why money robbery is a problem is the state of the health care system in this country because, according to Srinivasan, data from last year shows that 41% of Americans are underinsured, and 13% have no insurance at all. He also cited figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation that 29% of American adults don’t pick up their prescriptions because of concerns about out-of-pocket costs. All things considered, it’s not hard to see the incongruity here; especially for a person with a disability, the stratospheric costs of health care plus medication are more often than not hugely impeding in getting much-needed care for optimal health and well-being.
Srinivasan was unequivocal in explaining his motivation for starting DiRx. “There is no reason [for customers to pay] exorbitant prices for [their medication],” he said. “That’s not the cost of the product. It’s the cost of a system.”
Prior to launch, Srinivasan and team conducted extensive market research across the country. They created what he described as “heat maps” that mapped hotspots of underserved populations in terms of socioeconomic status, health factors, and insurance level, among other things. They also surveyed people in an effort to gauge what ordinary people view as the biggest barriers to their health care. All that information gathering and learning played an important role in building the DiRx program that exists today, Srinivasan said.
“Because I understand the real costs [of drug manufacturing], [I know] there must be a better way,” Srinivasan said. “Today we are surrounded by so much technology, our digital devices and smartphones. Why not use that to disrupt the system and gain direct access to consumers? That brought me to this point.”
Customers can sign up for DiRx through the company’s website, which, Srinivasan said, houses one of the largest collections of generic drugs in the world. In addition to the self-service web interface, DiRx offers free, 24/7 telephone customer support in English and Spanish. Customers can also tell their healthcare provider to send any prescriptions to DiRx. Their pharmacy is located in Florida.
The feedback on DiRx was positive. Srinivasan explained that the company has an average rating of 4.7 on customer service site Trustpilot, a remarkable achievement considering the industry average is only 3.5. DiRx has fulfilled “tens of thousands” of prescriptions in just a few months after it became publicly available. Srinivasan said the most common comment comes from people who say they find DiRx’s user experience and the communication of the customer support staff “loving”.
Looking to the future, Srinivasan believes DiRx has a real chance in the future to disrupt the traditional pharmacy model given the current “sad state of affairs”. He lamented how a third of Americans find it “too prohibitively expensive and inaccessible” to get medicine, and is determined to make a dent in this corner of the universe. To that end, DiRx is exploring potential retail expansion, as well as new products (for them) like the notoriously expensive Epipens. They are also exploring therapy-specific services, such as partnering with the Hepatitis B Foundation to make care and support more affordable and accessible.
DiRx continues to advance and innovate towards a brighter future.
“We started with a large number of products and we would like to keep expanding,” says Srinivasan. “Now we want to strategically get into the problem areas and try to solve them. Then we as a pharmacy will look at other related matters [and see] where we can add even more value.”