Medicine is rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness before becoming available to the consumer. In the U.S., the FDA makes sure this happens. Once on the market, the FDA, along with the makers of the drug, continue to monitor the medicine for any unforeseen problems. Should an issue develop, or the safety of a medication come into question, a recall may be initiated.
"These programs really work," says Scott L. Parkin, vice president of communications for the National Council on Aging. "They help millions of people get medications that they couldn't otherwise afford."
To make these programs work for you, WebMD turned to some experts for advice.
Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs
Drug companies offer some of the best pharmaceutical assistance programs (PAPs), giving away medicine for free -- or at significant discounts -- to those that are eligible.
"These programs have been wonderful," says Maria Hardin, vice president of patient services at the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD) in Danbury, Conn. "It's now the norm that when a new drug gets approved, the company will create a program to give it away to some people who can't afford it."
Of course, not everyone is eligible. For example, some pharmaceutical companies set income caps and "the paperwork for different programs varies quite a bit," says Rich Sagall, president and co-founder of NeedyMeds, a nonprofit that provides information about financial assistance for drugs.
Sagall also warns that some health care providers may be slow in filling out the forms and "some people say that their doctors will charge them $15 for paperwork."
If that happens to you, Sagall recommends talking honestly with your doctor about your financial situation.
"If that doesn't work, I do know of some patients who have dropped their old doctor to find a new one who would not charge," he says.
Sagall points out that none of these pharmaceutical assistance programs are good for people in an emergency.
"These programs won't work in an acute situation," he says. "If you need a drug tomorrow, you're not going to get it from a PAP."
Free Prescription Drugs: Where's the Catch?
Of course, cynics might wonder why pharmaceutical companies may give away their costly drugs for free.
"Companies like to be seen as good corporate citizens," says Sagall. "They give away to these programs in the same way that they might donate to the symphony or a museum."
He also says these programs help the pharmaceutical companies advertise their medicines. And there's always the hope that uninsured people who get a drug for free might become loyal to it.
"Then later if they get insurance and can actually pay for it," Sagall says, "they will stick with the drug."
Another catch, for some, is that many PAPs require you to share financial information and that can be unnerving for people who want such information private. But Hardin, who runs the drug assistance programs for NORD, says it's often crucial.
"We have to use a financial means test," he says. "We just can't have millionaires applying for this. We have to draw the line somewhere."