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If you cannot afford the prescription medications you need, you may be eligible for patient assistance programs offered by drug makers or state governments. Here's an overview of how patient assistance programs work.  

Patient Assistance Programs Run by Drug Companies

To get the process started, you need to mail an application to the drug company, along with information about your financial situation. You can usually download an application from the company’s web site. In most cases, your doctor will need to fill in information about your prescription.  

The drug company will review your application and let you know if you are eligible.Many companies will ship a supply of the drug to your home or health care provider’s office.You or your provider will need to place a new order several weeks before your supply runs out.

Assistance Programs Run by States and Nonprofit Groups

Many states offer pharmaceutical assistance programs. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands offered some form of prescription drug assistance as of June 2011. Programs tend to be geared to people who are elderly, disabled, or in financial need, however the specifics vary by state. For details see the NCSL list online.

Drug Discount Cards

Some states, nonprofit organizations, and retail pharmacies offer drug discount cards. A few of these cards are free. Others you can purchase for a low monthly or annual fee.

If you are interested in buying a drug discount card, be sure to go with a reputable organization, such as AARP or NeedyMeds.

Unfortunately, scam artists peddle fake discount cards to try to gain access to people’s credit cards and social security numbers. Be aware that discount cards are not health insurance -- some may try to rope you in by saying that they are. Before you sign up for any discount card, make sure it comes with clear terms and conditions and at least a 30-day refund policy.

Get Help Sorting it All Out

If you take many medications, it may be hard to research all your options and fill out paperwork for all the different programs. Several groups provide free information, and some will help you find the program that supplies the drug you need. Some will also help you with the application process.

  • Partnership for Prescription Assistance, sponsored by a group of pharmaceutical companies, is an organization that provides free information and services to help you figure out which assistance programs you qualify for. In some cases, they will help you with the application process.
  • NeedyMeds is a nonprofit organization that maintains an extensive database of information about patient assistance programs, state assistance, and free or low-cost medical care. You can search their database for free on their site.  
  • RxAssist is a web site that provides news and information about programs that provide free or affordable drugs and co-pay assistance.  
  • Center for Benefits, provided by the National Council on Aging, provides information about assistance programs for low-income seniors.
  • RxOutreach is a mail order pharmacy for people with little to no health insurance coverage.