Layoffs Driving More People to Consider Prescription-Drug Assistance Programs Normally Aimed at the Poorest Americans

As the slowing economy swells the ranks of the unemployed and uninsured, more people are getting help from prescription-drug assistance programs normally aimed at providing medications to the poorest Americans.

Drug-assistance programs, long sponsored by pharmaceutical manufacturers, provide consumers with billions of dollars a year in free or low-cost drugs. To qualify, patients must meet strict financial requirements. But as the economy weakens, a growing number of people are getting approved for programs to help them pay for high-price drugs. For example, a year’s supply of Advair, a popular asthma drug, can cost around $2,500 a year, while Plavix, a blood thinner, can run more than $1,800 a year.

“These programs have always been designed to be a safety net, but more and more people are falling into it,” says Ken Johnson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, which represents big drug companies. The group says that during the recent economic downturn  that its Partnership for Prescription Assistance service has helped enroll more than 100,000 patients a month into private and public programs.

AstraZeneca PLC of the U.K., which markets such medications as Nexium for acid reflux and Crestor, a cholesterol drug, says patient requests have increased across its assistance programs in the U.S. This includes insured people who can’t afford their drug copayments and Medicare beneficiaries who run up against drug-coverage gaps.

A number of drug makers say they are prepared to expand their programs in response to the growing influx of patients. “We believe in the free-market health-care system, and that system is at risk if more and more people fall through the cracks,” says PhRMA’s Mr. Johnson. The group’s 35 member companies have provided $13 billion in free medications since 2005, he says.

Still, applying to drug manufacturers’ patient-assistance programs can be daunting. Many companies have different programs for different drugs, and each program often has its own set of rules. In addition to the application, programs often require tax statements or other proof of income, a prescription and other information from a doctor, and sometimes a letter that Medicaid or a private insurer has refused to cover the expense.