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Drug companies team up to offer cheaper prescriptions to uninsured

WASHINGTON—Eleven leading pharmaceutical companies launched a new drug card program Tuesday that will offer discounts on prescription drug purchases for 36 million uninsured Americans.

The Together RX Access Card program, which begins in February, will provide savings of 25 to 40 percent off the retail price of more than 275 brand name drugs offered by the sponsoring companies. The drugs include medications to treat a broad range of illnesses, including diabetes, cancer, high-blood pressure and arthritis.

Legal U.S. residents who are uninsured, under age 65, ineligible for Medicare and have no public or private drug coverage are eligible for the card if they meet program income guidelines. Those guidelines, which vary depending on family size, require that cardholders earn less than $30,000 if single or less than $60,000 for a family of four.

Covered drugs include popular medications such as Allegra; Augmentin; Depo-Provera; Flonase; Lipitor; Nexium; OrthoTri-Cyclen; Paxil; Pravachol; Prilosec; and Zantac. The card also covers controversial painkillers Celebrex and Bextra, which are made by Pfizer and belong to a class of drugs known as Cox-2 inhibitors. Recent studies have found that Cox-2 drugs cause heart problems. Pfizer has voluntarily pulled advertising for Celebrex and Bextra. The card also covers Crestor, a cholesterol-lowering drug made by AstraZeneca that has been linked to liver problems.

In addition to Pfizer and AstraZeneca, participating companies include Abbott Laboratories, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceutica Products, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical Inc., Takeda Pharmaceuticals N.A. Inc. and TAP Pharmaceutical Products Inc.

Of the nation's 45 million uninsured, about 80 percent—including more than 8 million children—are probably eligible for the card, said Roba Whiteley, executive director of Together RX Access, based in Alexandria, Va. About 80 percent of all uninsured Americans are in families that are actively employed, but can't afford or are not offered employer-based health insurance.

Persons who want to apply for a card can get application information 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 800-444-4106 or by visiting the Internet site at www.TogetherRxAccess.com. Program participants will work with a number of local help agencies, health care providers and pharmacists to increase public awareness of the program.

Together RX Access is an umbrella group of 11 drug companies, seven of which already provide a discount card for Medicare seniors called the Together Rx Card. The new card will be operated independently of the Medicare card offering, Whiteley said.

The new drug card should provide a public relations boost for the drug industry, which has been buffeted by accusations of industry price gouging and profit-mongering. Some critics, however, may view the program as an attempt to ward off possible congressional action to require drug discounts for the uninsured.

Health experts estimate that 18,000 people die in the United States each year because they don't have access to care and medications. The pharmaceutical industry has developed hundreds of drugs that have improved the longevity and eased the suffering of millions worldwide. Yet surveys show it's one of the least popular business sectors with U.S. consumers, who pay the highest prescription drug prices in the world.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the new card should supplant the need for the uninsured to buy Canadian drugs. U.S. patients spend an estimated $1.1 billion a year on cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

Ron Pollack, president of the patient advocacy group Families USA, said the card was "a good thing" and "commendable." But he cautioned that most uninsured people can't afford to go to a doctor in order to get a prescription.

Whiteley, however, said they can get prescriptions from community health centers and emergency rooms that treat the poor for free.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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