Public perception of the pharmaceuticalindustry has remainedlow, with drug company profitsseen as a major factor in driving uphealth care costs. Pharmaceutical companies,however, have been trying toshow that they are meeting their obligationsas responsible corporate citizens.Examples include patient assistanceprograms, which have helpedmillions to get medicines for free or atlow cost.
These programs have not been withoutcontroversy and criticism. Patientssometimes found them confusing anddifficult to enroll in. Many patientsthen found themselves ineligible onceMedicare Part D programs becameavailable.
Some drug companies, however,appear to have listened to the criticism,understood the issues, and triedto address them. A recently added programfrom AstraZeneca focuses specificallyon helping, rather than excluding,people who already subscribe to a PartD plan. The company also is using lessrestrictive income guidelines that mayopen up the program to many morepeople.
Another unusual aspect of the programis that, once qualified, patients canfill their prescriptions at participatinglocal pharmacies. That could be particularlyhelpful for many patients in Part Dplans, who may benefit from the counselingthat pharmacists can provide.
GlaxoSmithKline also has expandedits patient-assistance programs, offeringdrugs free to eligible low-incomeMedicare Part D participants—but onlyif they have already spent $600 of theirown money on medicines.
Of course, these programs will notprovide a simple solution for all patientsstruggling with drug costs under Part D.Patients will still need to analyze theoften complex options to determinewhich combination of Part D, otherinsurance plans, and assistance programsmakes most sense for reducingthe costs of their medications.
We would all like to see medicinesbecome affordable for everyone. Whenacting to control the cost of pharmaceuticals,however, it is important to beaware of the potential impact on theindustry. It will not be in anyone's bestinterest if we stifle the drug developmentthat leads to new treatments.How would we feel today if, 25 yearsago, development had been cut back,depriving us of current blockbusterdrugs that have served millions of people?Pharmaceutical companies alreadyreceive their share of criticism. Perhapsthey also deserve a little more recognitionfor the things they do right.
Mr. Eckel is professor and director ofthe Office of Practice Developmentand Education at the School ofPharmacy, University of NorthCarolina at Chapel Hill.