Drug Companies Helping Patients Afford Medicines

FEBRUARY 01, 2007
Fred M. Eckel, RPh, MS, Pharmacy Times Editor-in-Chief

Public perception of the pharmaceutical industry has remained low, with drug company profits seen as a major factor in driving up health care costs. Pharmaceutical companies, however, have been trying to show that they are meeting their obligations as responsible corporate citizens. Examples include patient assistance programs, which have helped millions to get medicines for free or at low cost.

These programs have not been without controversy and criticism. Patients sometimes found them confusing and difficult to enroll in. Many patients then found themselves ineligible once Medicare Part D programs became available.

Some drug companies, however, appear to have listened to the criticism, understood the issues, and tried to address them. A recently added program from AstraZeneca focuses specifically on helping, rather than excluding, people who already subscribe to a Part D plan. The company also is using less restrictive income guidelines that may open up the program to many more people.

Another unusual aspect of the program is that, once qualified, patients can fill their prescriptions at participating local pharmacies. That could be particularly helpful for many patients in Part D plans, who may benefit from the counseling that pharmacists can provide.

GlaxoSmithKline also has expanded its patient-assistance programs, offering drugs free to eligible low-income Medicare Part D participants—but only if they have already spent $600 of their own money on medicines.

Of course, these programs will not provide a simple solution for all patients struggling with drug costs under Part D. Patients will still need to analyze the often complex options to determine which combination of Part D, other insurance plans, and assistance programs makes most sense for reducing the costs of their medications.

We would all like to see medicines become affordable for everyone. When acting to control the cost of pharmaceuticals, however, it is important to be aware of the potential impact on the industry. It will not be in anyone's best interest if we stifle the drug development that leads to new treatments. How would we feel today if, 25 years ago, development had been cut back, depriving us of current blockbuster drugs that have served millions of people? Pharmaceutical companies already receive their share of criticism. Perhaps they also deserve a little more recognition for the things they do right.

Mr. Eckel is professor and director of the Office of Practice Development and Education at the School of Pharmacy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.