Seniors face loss of free drugs

December 1, 2005

Washington--Pharmaceutical companies have been promoting drug giveaway programs this past year to help low-income consumers get needed medicines—and also to improve their image. Now the advent of the Medicare prescription drug benefit threatens a big drop in PAPs (pharmaceutical assistance programs) for the elderly. The seven manufacturers who sponsor the Together Rx card for 1.5 million Medicare patients are calling it quits, continuing only a sister program for non-Medicare patients. Other companies tell seniors they can't get free drugs if they sign up for a Medicare drug plan.

WASHINGTONPharmaceutical companies have been promoting drug giveaway programs this past year to help low-income consumers get needed medicines-and also to improve their image. Now the advent of the Medicare prescription drug benefit threatens a big drop in PAPs (pharmaceutical assistance programs) for the elderly. The seven manufacturers who sponsor the Together Rx card for 1.5 million Medicare patients are calling it quits, continuing only a sister program for non-Medicare patients. Other companies tell seniors they can't get free drugs if they sign up for a Medicare drug plan.

The problem is that PAP sponsors find it impossible to mesh with the multitude of Medicare Part D prescription drug plans-all with different formularies, copays and coinsurance arrangements. And there's mass confusion over how drug giveaways would count toward a patient's out-of-pocket spending, which is key for determining when an individual falls in the "donut hole" or qualifies for catastrophic coverage.

Manufacturers also fear they will be hit with fraud and abuse charges for providing "direct assistance" to patients, says Sean Dougherty of Astra Zeneca. The HHS inspector general recently issued an advisory bulletin confirming that manufacturer-sponsored PAPs run the risk of inducing providers to prescribe their products, which presents "a heightened risk of fraud and abuse." The Office of the Inspector General advises pharma companies to support independent charity programs operated by patient advocacy groups.