Making life-saving medicine available

Michael Holmes was determined to make a difference, and with a little guidance from above, help from pharmaceutical companies and some ingenuity, he started saving lives.

Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes is founder and chairman emeritus of RX outreach, a nonprofit pharmacy, that provides affordable medications to those in need. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

By almost any definition, Michael Holmes’ career had been a success story. The first of his family to attend college, Michael Holmes, AB ’79, went on to become a partner at Edward Jones, heading the company’s HR division. Under his leadership, Edward Jones achieved the No. 1 spot in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. At age 46, Holmes retired to volunteer his time with nonprofit organizations that made a difference in people’s lives.  

A year later, after finding the nonprofit pace slower than expected, Holmes accepted a leadership role with Express Scripts. He began by running the firm’s HR function and was soon managing $2 billion worth of subsidiary businesses along with many of the corporate staff groups and leading strategy for the firm. But something was still missing: He was looking for a greater purpose in his life. 

About Michael Holmes, AB ’79

Studied: Political science

About WashU: “WashU gave me the skills I needed to be successful. I grew up in North County, St. Louis, and it was basically black and white, and there wasn’t much diversity. And when you go to WashU, you see all this diversity — different attitudes and perspectives. It opens your mind in terms of realizing the world is a lot bigger, and there are more ways to think of things than you’ve thought of before.” 

Volunteer work: Brown School’s National Council; Advisory board member and speaker with the Bauer Leadership Center; BJC HealthCare Board of Directors; One Family Church trustee 

Then, during an act of prayer, Holmes’ true calling was revealed to him. “God spoke to me that morning. There was no doubt in my mind,” says Holmes, who was then in his 50s. “He put it in my heart to take Rx Outreach, a small part of my portfolio, and spin it off as a nonprofit.”  

Within a few months, Holmes founded Rx Outreach as a stand-alone company that makes prescription drugs affordable and accessible for the underprivileged. He then retired from Express Scripts to dedicate himself to this new mission. (The organization’s motto is “Honoring God by serving others.”) 

With a generous donation from Express Scripts, which at the outset contributed $7 million worth of equipment and supplies, Holmes assembled a team including pharmacists, patient service representatives and technical support personnel that could deliver these heavily discounted drugs to those in need. He also established partnerships with pharmaceutical companies willing to donate drugs outright or sell them at greatly reduced cost. Now with 40,000 patients a year, Rx Outreach has helped patients save nearly $1 billion. 

In just one of thousands of examples, a retired teacher who lives on a farm with her husband couldn’t afford Plaquenil, a brand medication, for her rheumatoid arthritis. Without it, she was faced with moving to a nursing home since her husband couldn’t take care of her. By lowering the cost from $600 a month to $35 for two months’ treatment, Rx Outreach made it possible for her to remain at home. 

“When you’re on the phone with patients,” Holmes says, “and you hear stories about how they wouldn’t be able to make it without their medication, or you get a thank you letter from someone who says, ‘Look, my husband just died, but you kept him alive 10 years longer than he ever would have lived by making his medicine affordable,’ it touches your heart and makes you say, ‘OK, this makes sense for us.’” 

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