July 14, 2002
Hey, seniors: Prescription giveaways are out there
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — Like many Americans, Betty Burns of Canton was struggling to cover the rising cost of her prescription drugs.
Two years ago, the 67-year-old divorcee discovered a little-known giveaway program sponsored by drug companies. It now saves
her about $300 a month.
“I could manage pretty good, but it would be a big difference if I had to pay for all my medicine,” Burns said.
Over the past 20 years or so, the nation’s drug companies have provided billions of dollars in medicine to millions of people who lack
prescription drug coverage but whose modest incomes or resources prevent them from being considered poor.
Last year, for example, the industry gave away $1.5 billion worth of drugs to 3.6 million people, according to the Pharmaceutical
Research and Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group for drug companies. That’s a dramatic jump from 1997, when the
industry filled $2 million worth of prescriptions for about 1 million recipients.
Millions of people who could benefit from such programs, however, are unaware of them. Finding out about the free drugs and filling
out the necessary paperwork can be difficult and frustrating.
“The programs are extremely beneficial,” said Dr. J. Edward Hill, a family practitioner in Tupelo, Miss., who is chairman of the
American Medical Association. But Hill added that a “very low” percentage of those who could benefit know about them.
The easiest way to find out is through a doctor, but many physicians are too busy to tell their patients about the programs or help
them apply to the drug companies.
“It’s extremely time-consuming, extremely labor-intensive and consequently I think most physicians’ offices have a very difficult
time doing the work,” Hill said. He used to employ a nurse to fill out applications for patients and keep track of the medications as
they were sent to his office from the drug companies, and it was almost a full-time job, he recalls.
In addition to the free-drug programs, which are open to all ages, several companies have recently introduced prescription discount
cards to help seniors pay for medications.
“In the absence of the Medicare drug benefit, they have put together their own individual private programs as a bridge for those who
are in need until there is a federal program,” said Jackie Cottrell, a spokeswoman for PhRMA, the drug lobbying group.
Among these is the Together Rx card, a project of Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Bristol-Myers Squibb
Co., GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis.
The card provides discounts of 20 percent to 40 percent on drugs made by these companies. That card and others are limited to
people covered by Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors.
Medicare does not cover prescriptions, at least not yet. The U.S. House recently approved a multibillion-dollar Republican bill that
would add prescription coverage to Medicare. Democrats favor a more generous version of the legislation.
Drug companies insist their programs are exercises in philanthropy.
“It’s not news to anyone that there’s a need for seniors to have access to medications,” said Cindy Resman, spokeswoman for
Abbott Laboratories in Illinois. “This is just one way the pharmaceutical companies are in coalition to help address this issue.”
Hill, the physician, believes that drug makers “have an altruistic side to them,” but adds that it is also “good for public relations.”
To be eligible for Together Rx and other discount cards, or to qualify for free drugs, applicants must lack other prescription
insurance or coverage.
Income guidelines also apply.
The guidelines are more generous for discount cards, which are generally limited to people whose income is two or three times the
federal poverty level.
To get a Together Rx card, for example, income must be less than $28,000 for an individual or $38,000 for a couple, which is more
than three times the poverty level.
The free-drug programs vary in their eligibility requirements, depending on each company. In many cases, only applicants whose
income is less than twice the federal poverty level are considered. For an individual, that means an income less than $17,720 a
year. For a couple, it’s less than $23,880, and for a family of four, less than $36,200.
To qualify for free drugs, applicants typically must have exhausted any state or private programs that subsidize or help pay for
More than 30 states have adopted such government programs, which are usually for seniors.
Ohio has not had a program in the past, but earlier this year the Legislature passed a law directing the Department of Aging to
create a prescription discount for seniors.
Under the program, Ohio residents who are over 60 will be able to use their Golden Buckeye card to get discounts on drug
purchases. No state subsidies are planned for the program, which will be based on agreements between the state and drug
suppliers. The state expects to roll out the program early next year.
Advocates of a government-paid drug benefit as part of Medicare insist that the free-drug programs are no substitute. But they are
still helpful, if sometimes difficult to find out about and apply for.
“If they (drug companies) are getting millions of people (using the programs), great,” said John Rother, policy director for the AARP.
“But what I hear more is, it’s slow, it’s hard to get. If you need a prescription right away, you can’t afford to wait to get this whole
thing qualified. It can be difficult to enroll in.”
A way to simplify the application process is to pay a fee to one of a handful of companies that determine eligibility and apply for the
Burns, for example, found out about free drugs not through her doctor, but through a 2-year-old company called Patient Assistance
Services, based in Marion, Ohio.
She pays the company $55 every six months to apply for her two prescriptions, send the paperwork to her doctor and make sure
there is no interruption in her supply of medicine.
Pharmaceutical companies “make the process so cumbersome because there’s so much paperwork,” said Rick Weaver, executive
director of Patient Assistance Services. “The average person finds that process very undoable, especially older folks who may be in
declining years and ill and desperately need these medicines.”
Skeptics of the paid assistance, such as PhRMA spokesman Mark Grayson, point out that patients can get help filling out applications
from local senior centers and elsewhere for free. “We just tell people that these are free programs and you don’t need to pay
anybody to fill the forms out,” he said. Grayson also cautioned against unethical operators.
Others see merit in the service provided.
“Medical things are difficult for anybody, even educated folks,” said Hill, the physician who has made wide use of the free-drug
programs for his patients.