Institute for the Study of
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Whatís the best kept secret of the drug business?   You can get your medicines free of charge.

Amid the growing furor about rising prescription costs, many patients and doctors arenít aware that the drug companies themselves give away millions of dollars worth of drugs each year. And itís not just poor people who qualify. Although the drug companies wonít discuss criteria, patient advocacy groups say they have seen families with incomes of $50,000 or more get free prescriptions.

Most of the free drug programs require patients to apply through their doctors. In general, those who qualify are people who earn too much money to get government assistance but are facing a financial pinch because they have high medical costs and donít have insurance coverage for prescriptions. Patients who have maxed out their annual prescription insurance may also qualify.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, an industry trade group, said the nationís drug companies gave away 2.8 million prescriptions (this doesnít include drug samples) valued at about $500 million in 1998. By comparison, U.S. prescription drug sales reached $125 billion last year, according to IMS Health.

Social workers and patient advocacy groups say the corporate drug programs are underutilized, in part because they arenít widely publicized and often require both patients and doctors to file extensive paperwork. They see the companiesí motives as political as well as philanthropic. "In my opinion, they want to keep it a secret," says Cindy Hogg, administrator for the Medicine Program, a private advocacy group in Doniphan, Mo., which helps patients navigate the free drug application process. "They do it so they can tell Congress, ĎWe give away medicine for free,í but then they donít tell anybody about it and make it hard for people to apply."

Bristol-Myers Squibb spokesman Patrick Donohue said the companyís sales representatives promote the free drug program to doctors. Like other drug makers, Bristol-Myers wonít disclose its income criteria but said its program is "very generous" compared with federal programs.

Some of the drugs the company regularly gives away are the diabetes drug Glucophage, the cholesterol drug, Pravachol, and drugs treating AIDS and cancer. Once approved, patients receive free drugs for six months, and thereís no limit to how often they can reapply. The typical patient is in the program for about seven months, says Mr. Donohue.

Glaxo-Wellcome says its most requested drugs include the antidepressant Wellbutrin, asthma drugs like Flovent, and the heartburn drug Zantac. It accepts applications from health-care advocates such as physicians, nurses, social workers, clergy and billing clerks. The advocate fills out a form with the patientís income and insurance information. The advocate can then get approval by phone. If approved, the application number is activated and the patient can go to a pharmacy and get a 30-day prescription filled for a $5 to $10 copayment. Once the form is mailed in, the patient receives another 60-day supply. If more is needed, the patient must provide further documentation.

Glaxo wonít disclose its requirements, but says income is determined by subtracting medical expenses, which helps people with even high incomes qualify. The program only looks at income and expenses and doesnít count assets, which can often disqualify people from government programs. Last year, the company gave away $28 million in drugs; it fills more than 14,000 free prescriptions each month.

"We have a lot of people, elderly people, who are very well educated, who have worked all their lives, but for one reason or another donít qualify for government programs and just need some help," says Sandy Moulton, director of Glaxoís patient-assistance and reimbursement programs.

Eli Lilly says every drug it makes is eligible to be given away. Insulin for diabetes is one of the most requested. Spokeswoman Joan Todd, however, would disclose very little about the program. "It is administered through the doctor, and the criteria are on a case-to-case basis," says Ms. Todd. Nonetheless, the company last year distributed $113 million of free drugs through its Lilly Cares program.

Several organizations help people navigate the programs. The Medicine Program charges a $5 fee per prescription, which is refunded if the patientís application is rejected. The most popular drugs requested through that program include Wyeth-Ayerstís menopause drug, Premarin, Pfizerís cholesterol-lowering drug, Lipitor, and blood-pressure drug, Norvasc; AstraZenecaís ulcer drug, Prilosec, and Eli Lillyís antidepressant, Prozac.

Ms. Hogg, the administrator, says most companies supply three months of a drug per application, but some supply up to a year. People taking "maintenance drugs" such as blood-pressure or diabetes medicine generally have household income of $30,000 or less, but people who need medicines for catastrophic illnesses such as cancer or AIDS have qualified with incomes of $50,000 or more, she says. Applications and additional information can be found at

To get more information or to apply for free drugs, contact any drug company and ask about its patient-assistance programs. A complete listing of the free-drug programs can be found on the PhRMA Web site,


By Tara Parker-Pope

(The Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2000, page B1)

For additional information about this article, please e-mail the author at

Note:  The illustration above was adopted from Business and Health, April, 2000, page 22.

Last modified:  04.08.2010 02:58 PM