UNITY starts for-profit business

OKLAHOMA CITY - Unity seems to inspire win-win situations. In its 24th year of operation, the United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. is still growing and, as always, needing funds to support necessary programs assisting tribal youths around the country.

With more than 200 youth councils in 32 states, that's a big job.

Providing a national identity, as well as a forum and networking base for Indian youth, UNITY promotes personal development, citizenship and leadership among Native American youth. Its mission is to "foster the spiritual, mental, physical and social development of American Indian and Alaska Native youth and to build a strong, unified and self-reliant Native America through greater youth involvement."

In addition to providing leadership to the national youth councils, every year UNITY holds a five-day national conference.

To help fund its activities, UNITY has spun off the for-profit UNITY Enterprises. J.R. Cook, founder and executive director, says that with its creation, the organization has made an encouraging move toward self-sufficiency.

The first business endeavor is a partnership with Tulsa-based Interchange PMP. The prescription-benefit management company offers companies a specialized prescription card program with low prescription costs plus rebates to companies involved.

"One of the ways they make money is that they get rebates for using certain types of medication back from the manufacturer," says Interchange PMP President Mark Lewandowski.

"In most cases those rebates go back to the person who sponsors the plan, like a fully insured carrier would get that money back or a self-funded organization would get money back."

Before he met with Cook, Lewandowski says he had been asking himself, 'Why aren't Indian tribes getting those dollars back?' When he heard about UNITY and the Native American youth councils, he says he got really excited, seeing a way to help the tribes and help Native American youth at the same time.

Lewandowski met with Cook and described the program. He suggested a partnership where a for-profit arm of UNITY could negotiate with tribes to subscribe to the prescription benefit management program, while permitting manufacturer rebates to be directed to the non-profit youth organization, UNITY.

"Some of those proceeds go to carry the costs or cover the costs of medications and processing of the claims that we do," says Lewandowski. "But why couldn't we be throwing that (rebate) money back into an organization that benefits tribal youth?"

The program started with Interchange PMP developing a pharmacy network for participating tribes. Tribes use the networks to buy prescriptions for members and employees at significant discounts. An additional benefit is that the PMP computer system monitors the prescriptions and works with the pharmacies in a drug-utilization review process to help assure that people taking medications will not combine prescriptions that could lead to adverse effects.

Other benefits include 24-hour pharmacy access, mail order and Internet pharmacies, disease-management support and a larger network of pharmacies to choose from.

In the second year of the business partnership, UNITY Enterprises and Interchange PMP are working with several national pharmacy chains to acquire prescriptions that can match the low tribal rate for tribal members. The companies are serving a handful of tribes providing prescription benefits for their non-Native tribal employees.

Cook and Lewandowski estimate that with "moderate tribal support" in the next five years, they could secure rebate dollars that would add $200,000 a year to UNITY coffers.

"The vision I want to see is ... that we can expand programs to handle staffing that needs to be done ... and to consider regional offices or at least training teams that when needed (by the different youth groups) they could be on call," says Cook. "I want to see UNITY on a solid financial base."

And, Cook wants UNITY headquarters to continue to serve as a role model for the UNITY youth councils around the country in the economics department as well as other arenas.

"Some (youth councils) are fully developed with total funding from the tribe with full-time staffing and plenty of funds to do what they want to do," says Cook. "At the other end of the spectrum is a youth council that has a volunteer adviser and for everything, from travel to conferences to new projects, they have to fund raise. Most are somewhere in between."

As an organization that teaches the importance of economic sovereignty, UNITY is taking its own advice about business opportunities and is planning how to get ahead and hold its own in the future.