Initiative offers discount drugs to uninsured

Eight Columbia pharmacies adopt a plan to help the 11 percent of Missourians without insurance.
Sunday, February 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:25 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 26, 2008

While elected leaders and policymakers in Jefferson City and Washington continue to grapple with the spiraling costs of prescription drugs, at least some of the uninsured will soon be able to participate in a new nationwide discount-drug program.

Together Rx Access, set to begin Saturday, is a collaboration of 10 of the nation’s biggest drug companies. The program is an extension of Together Rx, which launched two years ago to help people older than 65 obtain cheaper drugs.

The new program will provide savings of 25 percent to 40 percent on more than 275 prescription drugs, medical products and generic drugs to lower-income individuals and families. Users can present the discount card right at the pharmacy counter.

Steven Cooper, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania-based Together Rx Access, said the program was created out of a realization that many Americans are in need.

“The timing is right, the cost for research and development in drugs is increasing and people trying to get drugs are not always going about it in the safest and best way,” he said. “There is a less-fortunate population where some people may work several jobs that don’t offer benefits to reduce the cost of drugs.”

More than 45 million Americans, including 8.4 million children, do not have prescription drug coverage, according to a 2004 report by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. The commission found that 23 states took actions within the last year that “made it more difficult for families and children to secure and retain health coverage.”

Among those states is Missouri, where about 543,300 people — about 11 percent of the state’s population — are uninsured. And with the recent proposal by Gov. Matt Blunt to reduce Medicaid eligibility, that number is only expected to increase.

Needy families in Columbia often turn to the Missouri Department of Social Services. Jennifer Roberts, a department official in Boone County, said that programs like Together Rx Access are important to be aware of because there are a number of gaps in the services that the state social service agencies provide.

Some families may have an income that exceeds the agency’s eligibility limits but still require help, she said. Or they may face a sudden crisis after losing their jobs.

“A number of families that we work with we don’t have long-term relationships with,” Roberts said. “It is important we be aware of what the services are because a lot of times they call not knowing what to do. It is difficult, and generally it is a crisis situation, and they don’t have a lot of time to seek out resources.”

In any given month, the number of families receiving health benefits from the Department of Social Services varies. As of December, 5,672 families in Boone County were benefiting from state health services.

Eligibility for Together Rx Access is specific and designed to help people who need it most. To apply for the card, a person must be a legal U.S. resident ineligible for Medicare, must not have public or private prescription drug coverage, and must claim a household income equal to or less than $30,000 for individuals and $60,000 for a family of four.

Enrollment has already begun; the card becomes active Feb. 12. Preliminary statistics on the number of enrollees and their states of residence is not yet available, Cooper said.

Families USA, a national nonprofit group working to achieve affordable healthcare, credited the pharmaceutical industry for offering this program and acknowledging that it is not just seniors who need help.

But the drug industry initiative doesn’t go far enough, said Dee Mahan, deputy director of health policy for Families USA, which is based in the nation’s capital.

“(Although it’s) a better option than some other discount cards that are out there, it is not a substitute for comprehensive drug insurance because someone is still going to have to pay for a lot of the prescription drugs, and only some are covered,” she said.

Some common drugs included in the program include birth control pills; Paxil CR and Wellbutrin, both antidepressants; Synthroid, a hypothyroidism treatment; and Meridia, a weight-loss drug.

In some cases, though, uninsured consumers might be able to realize greater savings by participating in Patient Assistance Programs offered by the individual drug companies.

Card users can find out what savings are available on drugs not included in the program by calling Together Rx Access at 800-444-4106, which can then direct individuals to the Patient Assistance Programs. These programs are offered individually by the participating drug companies and can provide free medications in many instances.

“Most of our pharmaceutical products are included (in Together Rx Access),” said Liz Shea, a spokeswoman for Abbott Laboratories. “We also offer some diabetes care products including the Precision Freestyle blood glucose test strips, but a couple are not included because we offer more comprehensive Patient Assistance Programs that offer free medications.”

In addition to Abbott Laboratories, these companies are part of the new program: AstraZeneca, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceutical Products, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, Pfizer, Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America and Tap Pharmaceutical Products. Ortho-McNeil and Janssen pharmaceutical are part of the Johnson & Johnson corporate hierarchy.

Across the country, 40,000 pharmacies are participating. Eight in Columbia have already signed on, although more could eventually join, officials said.

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