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Free medicine from a surprising source: Drug companies

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Low-income, uninsured patients at the El Dorado County Community Health Center in Placerville, CA, can find help applying for free prescription medications. ((Courtesy of EDC Community Health Center))

Two years ago Joe Commons was struggling to afford his prescription medications. His diabetes had forced him into early retirement from his career as a mechanical designer and his wife’s $24,000 salary didn’t cover their expenses.

At 60, he was too young to receive Social Security, and he didn’t qualify for federal aid programs like Medicare and Medicaid. To save money, he went without his blood pressure and cholesterol medications and stretched each $30 vial of insulin dangerously far.

“I would only take one [insulin] shot a day instead of two,” Commons, said. “Or sometimes one shot every other day.”

Essential prescriptions can cost people who are uninsured, or under-insured, hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month, as brand-name drugs cost more in the U.S. than in other industrialized countries. That leaves many Americans trying to purchase their drugs online from Canadian pharmacies or, like Commons, doing without.

But help is available from a surprising source: the pharmaceutical companies themselves. All the major drug companies and many smaller ones offer “patient assistance programs” through which low-income and uninsured patients can get prescription medications for free. But the programs are little-known, and the application process for them can be complicated.

Vickie Maddox, 60, was in a car accident in 2000 that left her with permanent back, spine and nerve damage. She became eligible for Social Security disability benefits, but $720 each month did not cover the cost of her medications. Maddox, also diabetic, was going without insulin--at $97 a vial--or chronic pain medication. “I was dying,” she said. “I had to have medicine, but I didn’t know where to turn.”

Both Maddox and Commons turned to their local Lawrenceville, Ga., branch of Atlanta-based Good Samaritan Health Center, where the staff helped them apply for free prescriptions through the programs offered by the drug companies. Now, they receive insulin and other medications free and their diabetes is under control.

Eighty patients at Good Samaritan qualify for the programs, said Kathryn Melton, a medical administrative assistant. Although requirements vary, the programs are designed for those who make slightly too much money to qualify for federal aid but don’t have enough insurance to cover their prescriptions, she said.

“For uninsured patients medications can be a huge financial burden,” Melton said. “The patient assistance programs can save them hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.”

But the application process can be an administrative burden. It can take hours to sort through the thousands of drugs offered through hundreds of different programs to determine if a patient is eligible and fill out patient applications.

That’s where the Massachusetts-based NeedyMeds comes in. Through its website and the software it licenses to clinics like Good Samaritan, the non-profit organization provides a database of programs offering more than 4,000 drugs for free.

Rich Sagall founded NeedyMeds in 1997 while he was a family physician in Bangor, Maine, when a medical social-worker friend told him about the programs pharmaceutical companies offered to low-income, uninsured patients.

“I consider myself pretty socially aware,” he said, “but even in my work as a family physician I had never heard of these programs before. We really saw a need for this information to be available to anyone who needs it.”

Around $6 billion (wholesale) in drugs are given away through these programs each year, Sagall said. Commons, the retired mechanical designer, now receives his insulin through Eli Lilly’s LillyCares program, which in 2006 gave $161 million dollars in prescriptions to 162,000 uninsured, legal United States residents who made less than twice the federal poverty level, said Janice Chavers, a Lilly communications officer.

But more drugs could be given out. “People don’t know where to look for the information,” said Roberta Downey, NeedyMeds’ director of program outreach. “Oftentimes medical people don’t know about the programs, so they can’t make the suggestion.”

NeedyMeds licenses its web-based software to 28 clinics around the country, Downey said, and makes its database of programs available for free through its website, NeedyMeds.com. Last year, more than two million people researched drug programs through the website: up to 9,000 visitors daily. “In my family practice I could see 30, maybe 40 patients a day. Now I can help 9,000,” Sagall said.

One hundred twenty five of those patients go to the El Dorado County Community Health Center, in Placerville, Calif. Since the center began using the NeedyMeds software two years ago, it has provided patients with nearly $300,000 in free medications, said Rebecca Drahmann, the patient services manager. One patient would have spent $6,000 on 13 prescriptions last year, and another would have needed to spend more than $100,000 for her rheumatoid arthritis medication.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s crazy how much money these programs save our patients,” Drahmann said. “We would be lost without them, and our patients would have no other option.”

Despite the help from the pharmaceutical companies, Maddox is still in dire financial straits. Her Social Security benefits were reduced, she couldn’t pay her rent this month, and she and her two dogs are living on the free bread she gets from church. But she is able to keep her diabetes, chronic pain and other conditions under control with the free prescriptions she receives through Good Samaritan.

“Only the Good Lord knows how badly I cry and worry sometimes,” Maddox said. “But He always picks me back up and tells me things will get better. These programs have been a godsend to me.”

Commons agrees, adding that the programs have changed the way he views the drug companies.

“I used to think ‘They’re doing anything to make money in any way they can and they just don’t care about anything else,’ but I was fooled,” said Commons. “If I could thank them personally, I would.”

E-mail: elm2128@columbia.edu