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."
Under Pfizer's Maintain program anyone who has lost a job since the beginning of the year may qualify for free drugs if they:
- Have been taking a Pfizer drug for at least three months prior to becoming unemployed and enrolling in the program.
- Have no prescription drug coverage.
- Can prove financial hardship.
Those who quality will receive drugs free for up to a year, or until they become reinsured. The program is open for enrollment through the end of the year.
Efforts by other drugmakers include:
- Merck has expanded its 50-year-old patient-assistance program to include an estimated 350,000 more Americans, spokeswoman Amy Rose tells WebMD. The company recently doubled the maximum income allowable to qualify for assistance, meaning that a family of four with an annual household income of up to $88,200 can now qualify for free medications. The previous maximum income was $44,100.
- Abbott Pharmaceuticals will help the majority of the 180,000 people taking the biologic medication Humira pay for the drug, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. Under the Humira Protection Plan, uninsured or low-income patients can get the drug for free and insured patients who qualify can get the drug for an out-of-pocket cost of around $60 a year, Abbott spokeswoman Elizabeth Hoff tells WebMD.
- AzstraZeneca provides free or low cost drugs through its AZ&Me program. Under the program, an uninsured family of four with an annual income of $60,000 or less may qualify for free drugs, while Part D beneficiaries who make $30,000 a year or less or $40,000 or less per couple may qualify for reduced-cost drugs.
Drug Prices Continue to Rise
While the programs may be helping those who qualify for assistance, a report released in April suggests that those who don't are paying more than ever for brand-name prescription drugs.
An AARP investigation found that the cost of top-selling, brand-name drugs rose by 8.7% in 2008, while inflation rose by just 3.8%.
AARP legislative policy director David Certner tells WebMD that brand-name drug prices have been increasing by roughly twice the level of inflation for around a decade, while the cost of generic drugs has declined.
Johnson disputes the claim, charging that AARP cherry-picked the drugs included in its report to make it look like drug costs are rising faster than they are.
The report found that the cost of the generic drugs examined declined by around 10% in 2008.
"The best way to save on drug costs is to choose a generic whenever possible," Certner says.
And more and more people are doing just that. Just over two decades ago, generics made up just 20% of the prescription drug market. Today, the figure is closer to 70%.
Another AARP investigation found that a patient paying for three brand-name prescription drugs could save an average of $500 annually by switching to generics.
AARP is also pushing for changes in the law to allow generic versions of biologic drugs like Humira, which are increasingly used to slow the progression of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Certner says some of the drugs cost as much as $10,000 a month.
"This could dramatically lower the cost of a group of very expensive drugs that are growing in use," he says.