Pharmaceutical Firms Increase Publicity for Donation Programs
The Los Angeles Times on Monday examined how drug manufacturers -- under mounting pressure to lower medication prices -- are "increasingly touting their donations of medicine" for low-income and sick people. Programs vary by company, but most require that recipients earn no more than 200% of the federal poverty level and lack prescription drug insurance and access to government programs.
The Times notes that although drug makers "aggressively" advertise their medications for the retail market, until recently, many companies have been "relatively modest" about their donation programs. According to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, drug manufacturers donated $4 billion in drugs last year by filling 22 million prescriptions nationwide. Overall, drug companies filled 3.5 billion prescriptions in the United States in 2004, according to IMS Health.
In response to a call for lower prices for low-income people, PhRMA in March announced a $10 million initiative to establish a program to link California residents to 350 donation drug programs. The industry has begun taking out television and print advertisements and mailing literature directing state residents to the initiative Web site. Since its inception, 64% of visitors to the Web site have qualified for at least one program.
According to the Times, "The drug industry says its new outreach efforts will make it far easier for people to find programs for which they qualify."
The increased publicity follows efforts by Democratic state legislators to require drug companies to offer discounted drugs to people who earn up to 400% of the federal poverty level. A legislative committee last month defeated a bill (SB 19) to enact a proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) that would have created a voluntary drug discount program, which pharmaceutical firms had endorsed.
Senate Health Committee Chair Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) said, "Part of what [pharmaceutical firms are] doing is to try to increase the visibility [of donation programs] as they go into this legislative battle. That opens them up to criticism about whether these programs operate effectively."
Some patient advocates and low-income U.S. residents have said that eligibility rules for donation programs are becoming stricter and that some companies cancel or suspend their programs without notice.
Some drug manufacturers require income documentation that many homeless and people with mental illnesses cannot provide and "establish other bureaucratic prerequisites" that prevent many people from qualifying for assistance, according to the Times. In addition, some proponents of the programs are concerned that increasing visibility and popularity of the programs might cause companies to limit access.
Susan Mister, director of the patient assistance program at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said, "I have seen it become extremely more restrictive and difficult to maneuver. They've become more labor-intensive. To a certain extent I understand that because the pharmaceutical companies are providing a lot more free drugs ... but I do think they are tightening the reins."
However, PhRMA spokesperson Mark Grayson said, "Every year we've been looking, upgrading how people can use patient assistance programs," adding, "We want to make sure these programs are utilized as much as possible" (Rau, Los Angeles Times, 5/9).