Free Medicine: A Phone Call Away

Paying for prescription drugs can be a hardship. Especially if you have no insurance, or if your insurance won’t cover cutting-edge or experimental therapies. But help is available if you know where to look.

Forty-three million Americans have no health insurance and even more have no coverage for prescription drugs. So when serious illness strikes, that can spell financial and emotional disaster. But there are several programs that offer free drugs for those who qualify and are willing to persevere.

When Charles Sacco was diagnosed with cancer, his first concern was how losing his job would affect his wife and four kids. Charles has no insurance to pay for the medicine he needs. Debilitating nausea from chemotherapy has only added to his misery. One doctor gave him a sample of a common antinausea medication that worked. But there was a catch.

"I found out that it was like $70 a pill and $700 for ten and there was no way that I was going to afford that," Charles told CBS 2.

For breast cancer patient Julia Erwin, paying for chemotherapy itself was an impossibility. "I think for 1 month it’s 4,000 [dollars]," Julia said.

Thanks to an aggressive doctor and his staff, Julia got her medication for free. In the year 2000, 2_ million patients nationwide received free drugs: That’s 6_ million prescriptions.

The drugs are readily available because of assistance programs created by pharmaceutical companies that are rarely publicized. They mostly serve people with no prescription insurance who don’t qualify for Medicaid and who earn under $50,000 a year.

The Sacco family turned to social worker Marylou Primano for help. She pointed them in the direction of Dr. Richard Sagall, founder of

"You would first see the introduction page," says Sagall, who runs a free Web site called Needy-Meds-Dot-Com, which is a clearinghouse for information. "For example, you would click on Accupril and that would take you to the Park-Davis site," explains Dr. Sagall.

The requirements for eligibility differ from company to company, and even drug to drug.

"A drug may be on for a while. They take it off. Put it back on. It may depend on their supplies . . . they have a surplus."

But getting your hands on the medicine may require jumping through hoops. Family physician Kevin Maloney says, "A lot of paperwork is very complicated. Some of the forms the pharmaceutical companies require are a pain in the neck, to be honest with you."

A nonprofit organization called the Medicine Program can help simplify the application process. For just $5, the program helps you and your physician fill out the forms and directs them to the right pharmaceutical company. The $5 is refundable if you don’t qualify.

Dan Hogg, of the Medicine Program, says, "We just more or less serve as middleman, as a patient advocate."

or Julia and the Saccos, perseverance has paid off. Both now have their free medicine, which means one less hurtle in their battle against cancer.

Denise Seth-Hunter, Dr. Sagall’s office manager, says, "You should not be embarrassed or ashamed. You should seek what you can for free."

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association in Washington puts out a list of all companies which have products available for free or at low cost. Other organizations offer similar information.

For more on this story and how to obtain those booklets, log onto the CBS Information Network Web site at

The following is a list of additional Web sites that viewers can contact for more information: or call (202) 478 0481.

The Cost Containment Research Institute of Washington, DC. Viewers can contact this institute for information on a $5.00 booklet on fre and low-cost prescription drugs.

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