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Drug Company Offers Discount Plan for Elderly Poor

But Are Lower Prices a Sign of Pioneering Spirit or Marketing Hype?
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 8, 2001 -- They are elderly, living at a poverty level we can barely imagine, unable to afford medications they need. Medicare won't cover their drugs unless they are in the hospital. For years, Congress has debated adding a drug benefit to Medicare. But now a drug company has created its own version -- at least for the drugs that it makes.

GlaxoSmithKline has unveiled its "Orange Card" program, offering savings to low-income seniors who don't have coverage for prescription medicines.

Beginning Jan. 1, the Orange Card will be available to those who are over 65, are disabled, and are enrolled in Medicare, have an annual income up to three times the federal poverty level, and lack public or private prescription drug coverage.

"It's a stop-gap measure," says Nancy Pekarek, spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline. "We will continue to work with the Bush administration and Congress to help gain passage of the prescription drug benefit. That's the best long-term solution. We're just one drug company. We obviously can't cover everyone who needs help. But we're doing what we can."

GlaxoSmithKline expects that as many as 11 million people will be eligible.

"We are committed to giving 25% off the amount we would sell to a wholesaler," Pekarek tells WebMD. "Since various pharmacies charge various prices for the medicine, the actual amount we would expect an average patient to at the pharmacy counter is 30-to-40%."

The program is designed to help elderly people who cannot afford prescription drugs and who do not qualify for government programs like Medicaid. Medicare covers only prescription drugs taken during hospitalization.

"Elderly people are paying out-of-pocket for their pharmaceuticals, and that can be a real strain for them, particularly if they are low-income," says Pekarek. "We're concerned that they will not comply with treatment regimens their doctors prescribe. They may not think they can get refills. Or they may try to stretch one month's pills to two by skipping a day or cutting a pill in half."

"The bottom line," she tells WebMD, "is that lack of compliance will affect their health."

In a statement to the press, William D. Novelli, CEO of the American Association of Retired Persons, says that the GlaxoSmithKline discount drug card program is "welcome recognition" of the plight facing older Americans.

"We urge other pharmaceutical companies to follow GlaxoSmithKline's example," as such programs "provide limited, but immediate relief, and add momentum to the effort to have Congress make Medicare complete by adding a voluntary and affordable [prescription program] to all beneficiaries," Novelli says.

But not all see this program as an entirely goodwill effort. It is an "extremely modest" measure, "trying to reap good public relations," says Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a national organization for healthcare consumers.

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