May 14, 2009

Pfizer Offers Free Prescription Drugs To Victims Of Recession

A new program announced on Thursday by the U.S. drug company Pfizer Inc. is allowing people who have lost their jobs and health insurance keep taking some widely prescribed Pfizer medications for free for up to a year, the Associated Press reported.

The program even includes the popular cholesterol drug Lipitor and the sexual dysfunction aid Viagra.

Pfizer will make more than 70 of its prescription drugs available at no cost to unemployed, uninsured Americans, who lost jobs since Jan. 1 and have been on the drugs for three months or more, regardless of their prior income.

Pfizer, which has long been criticized for its drug industry prices and sales practices, made the announcement amid job losses caused by the recession and a campaign in Washington to rein in health care costs and extend coverage.

The move will likely help keep those patients loyal to Pfizer brands.

Dr. Jorge Puente, Pfizer's head of pharmaceuticals outside the U.S. and Europe and a champion of the project, told AP that right now everybody knows a neighbor or relative who has lost their job and is losing their insurance, and the company hopes to help people bridge that point.

"People are definitely hurting out there," he added.

Pfizer officials stated they don't yet know how much the program will cost and haven't put a cap on spending for it.

Applicants who hope to take advantage of the program will be asked to sign a statement that they are suffering financial hardship and provide a "pink slip" or similar employer notice.

The world's biggest drug maker is accepting applications through Dec. 31, and pending approval, medication will be provided for up to 12 months, or until the person becomes insured again.

Beginning May 14, patients can call a toll-free number (866-706-2400) to sign up, and those whose drugs are not included in the program will be referred to other company aid programs.

Applicants can also sign up through the Web site as of July 1, where additional information about other Pfizer aid programs will be made available at:

David Heupel, health care portfolio manager at Thrivent Large Cap Growth Fund, suggested there's a long-term benefit in the move well beyond the goodwill and the publicity.

"Pfizer is trying to maintain their (market) share, if not grow their share by keeping people from switching to generic versions of its drugs to save money," he said.

However, many drug makers, including Pfizer, have been raising prices on their drugs to offset declines in revenue as the global recession reduces the number of prescriptions people can afford to fill.

Puente said the idea for the program came just five weeks ago as workers at a leadership training meeting discussed how many patients are struggling during the recession.

He said colleagues suggested employees could donate to a fund to help support the effort and that some employees had tears in their eyes when discussing how they could help people who had lost jobs.

Puente urged top management to approve the program by presenting a recent Associated Press article about how newly uninsured diabetics are suffering serious complications because they can no longer afford the medicines and testing supplies.

He added that approval came quickly as a result of the presentation.

The cholesterol fighter Lipitor, painkiller Celebrex, fibromyalgia treatment Lyrica and Viagra for impotence were among the 70-plus drugs covered under the program.

Additional antibiotics, antidepressants, antifungal treatments, several heart drugs, contraceptives and smoking cessation products also made the approved list.

The company claims its patient assistance programs helped 5.1 million people from 2004 through 2008 receive 51 million Pfizer prescriptions for free or at reduced cost, with a total value of $4.8 billion.


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