Psst. The real scoop on Patient Assistance Programs

ZNET commentary, December 26, 2000
By Dorothy Guellec

Drug companies are giving away medications if you know how to ask. This is the best-kept secret because it is not widely known. All of the top 30 pharmaceutical companies make prescriptions available free, and these programs are horribly underutilized. PHRMA, an industry trade group, told me that 2.8 million prescriptions nationwide (not including samples) valued at about $500 million were given away in 1998.

Getting prescriptions to the people who need them is vital nowadays. Costs are rising and, contrary to the mainstream media stories, few older citizens can just hop on a bus and go to Canada for a prescription every 30 days. There are several vehicles physicians can and should use to make sure needy patients get prescriptions. "We have a responsibility to care for the poor," said Herbert Rakatansky, MD, chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs.

I spoke with Bob Huber at Pfizer on December 9th, 2000. He told me that after the merger with Warner Lambert this summer, the combined companies' projected earnings for this next fiscal year would be $30 billion and of that, $5 billion would go for research and development. I asked about the other $25 billion, but he just laughed.

Of the patient population most dependent on medications - those older than 65-31% lack coverage for prescription drugs. Seniors who have coverage typically use 21 prescriptions a year. About 45% of the elderly have incomes at 200% or less of the poverty line. That's $16,000 to $18,000 a year before taxes. The average senior citizen today has 2 to 2 ½ chronic conditions, and a drug just for one chronic condition can cost between $500 and $3,000 a year if bought in the U.S. Of course one could always go to India and purchase a copycat for 1/50th the price. Trying to understand the regulations is very tricky as the pharmaceutical companies are not forthcoming, just the opposite. The drug companies will not discuss criteria; believe me I've tried. Patient-advocacy groups say they have seen families with incomes of $50,000 or more get free prescriptions.

Most programs require the patients to apply through their doctors. The doctors are not informed because generally it falls to the sales reps to promote the programs. In today's climate, with the average doctor allowing 10 minutes per patient, one can understand why doctors are not aware of these benefits. To qualify, applicants must show they have no coverage for outpatient prescription drugs; that their income must be low enough that paying for medicine would pose a hardship; and that they do not qualify for Medicaid. In reality the doctor writes a two-sentence letter to the pharmaceutical company without any other documentation. Most companies supply three months at a time on a case-by-case basis.

The corporate drug programs are underutilized. I see this as political not philanthropic. They want to keep it a secret. They do it so they can tell Congress, "We give away medicine for free," but then, they don't tell anybody about it and make it very hard for people to apply. After researching this program for hours, I came up with one article from the Wall St. Journal and a few stories from local mid-western papers. Actually the Journal article described the program as being "difficult to apply for."

This isn't true. Every company has guidelines and some require lengthy paperwork, but not uniformly. There is a non-profit organization called the Medicine Program that can help to simplify the process in some cases, but I would advise patients to first try on their own. Dan Hogg of the Medicine Program said, "We just serve as the patient's advocate." For $5, refundable if you do not qualify for the free drugs, this non-profit organization will help with the paperwork and get them to the right pharmaceutical company. Most pharmaceutical programs look at income and expenses and do not count assets, which can often disqualify people from government programs. Last year Glaxo Wellcome gave away $28 million in drugs, it fills more than 14,000 free prescriptions each month.

The Medicine Program's website is It appears strange that they claim to be non-profit with a com., and not org, but buyer beware I guess.

Physicians should be aware that a large number of people might have difficulty affording a drug without insurance coverage. Doctors are obligated in my opinion, to advocate for their patients. They should get involved and help to access medications. Some physicians feel that there are limits to their obligations. One said, "While physicians have a responsibility to help care for medically indigent patients in a variety of ways, using their own financial resources to make that happen is above and beyond the call of duty." Doctors, however, agreed that their implied social contract calls on them to help needy patients. I wonder if they feel that ensuring that patients obtain prescription drugs is part of that contract.

Handing out free samples from the manufacturers is the easiest option, but the industry opposes this - I wonder why. Of course it's not a long-term solution for patients with chronic conditions. A more viable option is the patient assistance programs. If physicians cannot keep on top of what pharmaceutical companies offer, then its up to the patients . Can't lose anything by asking. Pfizer Inc. is relies on the physician's word not the patient's tax forms.

Libby Overly was working as a home health social worker in Alabama when she recognized that the personal database she'd developed to navigate the patient assistance programs might encourage doctors to access them as well.

With the help of Richard J. Sagall, MD, she created Need Meds, an online database of companies and the free drugs they offer. Patients can also access a Directory of Drug Patient Assistance Programs by PhRMA a trade group for the pharmaceutical industry. It is a handy directory of 33 companies who provide drugs to physicians for patients who otherwise could not afford them. Of course ultimately society has the responsibility to make sure that people have access to all the health care they need.

The prestigious AARP devoted their November publication "Bulletin" to the array of problems that their sample of 11,000 members might encounter. Not once did they mention the Prescription Assistance Program. What is one to think? It is obvious that the top honchos do not want all the members of AARP asking their doctors for free medicines. A psychiatrist on a listserv wrote "many of my patients are provided medications through pharmaceutical company patient assistance programs.these provide for 2-3 month supply of meds for uninsured, low income patients. I rarely have had any patient turned down and have never had a patient taken off the program, unless of course they obtained insurance. My routine and the routine of many doctors in my clinic is to begin a patient on samples and then, once you find that the medication is working for the patient, transition them to the patient assistance program." The natural question to wonder about is why is this doctor so well informed, and most of the others are not? Is it not incumbent upon them to know about these programs? Maybe it's the fault of the drug reps., but if the reps can only see the nurses, or have 5 minutes with a doctor to explain a new medication, when can they promote patient assistance programs?

It finally and logically falls to the media, and the pharmaceutical companies themselves, to promote these programs vigorously. I did a very thorough search and spoke with lots of so-called informed people - they never heard of free medications from 33 of the leading companies. There are about 980 pharmaceuticals amongst all the companies, and new ones are being added all the time.

Anyone reading this is encouraged either to email me, or to insist that the doctor or someone on his or her staff research the availability of the medication. The chances are that there is at least one non-generic (expensive) drug that is available free of charge.

Dorothy Guellec
Tel 914 271-5644
Fax 914 271-6188