June 4, 2009 -- Last month, drugmaker Pfizer announced a plan to provide free prescription medications to newly unemployed people and their families who had lost their health insurance.
More than 70 drugs, including its best sellers Lipitor, Celebrex, and Viagra, will be offered free to those who can produce a pink slip and proof that they have been using a Pfizer drug for at least three months.
Other drug companies, including Merck and Abbott, have also expanded their patient-assistance programs to make their drugs available to people who can no longer afford them.
The drugmakers say they will provide their drugs free or at a reduced price to those in need in an effort to ease the burden on those hit hardest by the recession.
"Our program is about helping patients in need," Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder tells WebMD. "Nearly 46 million Americans lack health insurance in this country and we want to do what we can to ease the stress of this."
But a health care reform advocate calls the industry efforts a "band-aid approach," which will fall far short of providing affordable drugs to everyone who needs them.
Allan Coukell, who directs the Pew Prescription Project, tells WebMD that providing free or reduced-price drugs will improve the industry's image as lawmakers begin to debate health care reform.
He adds the programs will also keep patients loyal to brand-name drugs when they could choose much cheaper generic alternatives.
"Certainly these companies are acting in their own self-interest here, but that doesn't mean that patients aren't benefiting," Coukell says. "But none of these assistance programs are an alternative to a system that provides comprehensive coverage and affordable drugs to everyone."
Do You Qualify for Free Drugs?
Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the drug industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), agrees that health care reform is needed. But he says the drug assistance programs are good faith efforts by the industry to help people stay on their medications during hard economic times.
"Most of our companies have had patient-assistance programs for decades, but many have made their programs stronger in an attempt to ease the suffering that is being felt by so many people across the country."
PhRMA runs what Johnson calls a one-stop-shopping clearinghouse of the program that is designed to help patients apply for assistance (888-4PPA-NOW).
Over its four years of existence, PhRMA's Partnership for Prescription Assistance has helped nearly 6 million people get their prescription drugs either free or at a reduced cost, he says.
"Someone taking six or seven medicines might otherwise have to contact 35 or 40 programs to find out what is available," he says. "We ask 10 easy questions -- the most important being what medicines do you take -- and within 10 minutes we can give you a pretty good idea what you qualify for."