Throughout the country, hundreds of public and private programs already provide some assistance to consumers who can't afford their prescriptions. But finding out about the programs and accessing them can be a daunting bureaucratic task for doctors, let alone consumers.
The new program establishes a Web site and calling centers to match consumers with the program that best suits their needs. The drug manufacturers' partnership is spending $10 million to promote the campaign. It took out full-page advertisements Tuesday in several large newspapers and will also air television ads.
In addition, more than $20 million will have been spent developing the program and running three call centers through the end of June, the program's organizers said.
Drug manufacturers have been criticized for their opposition to legislation designed to reduce the cost of prescriptions through such measures as allowing drugs made in the United States to be imported from countries where the drug is available at a lower cost.
"This is serious business. This is going to be very expensive for the companies, but they're willing to make this commitment to save the free-market system in America," said Billy Tauzin, a former House committee chairman who is now president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Consumers can access the Partnership for Prescription Assistance program by calling a toll free number - 1-888-477-2669, or through the Internet at http://www.pparx.org.
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, an advocacy group that is often at odds with drug manufacturers, said some charitable programs offered by the drug companies are helpful to consumers. Others are marketing tools designed to build allegiance to a specific drug.
"It clearly is a public relations response to the widespread criticism concerning the skyrocketing prices that the drug companies continue to charge and to put as warm a face as possible on these growing problems," Pollack said. "How much of this will result in meaningful help to the people priced out of their medicines and how much of this results only in window-dressing is as yet unclear."
The federal government will provide prescription drug coverage next year for the first time under Medicare, but Tauzin said millions of uninsured Americans will still need help paying for their medicine. The program will probably expand in coming years, even with the new government benefit, he said.
Some Democratic lawmakers were not impressed with the new program.
"Helping a subset of the public navigate a patchwork of assistance programs is not a solution, it's a stalling tactic," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "The best way to help Americans is to charge us fair prices in the first place."
"The effort of the pharmaceutical companies is helpful, but insufficient," said Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, gave the program a lukewarm endorsement.
"The drug industry is right to recognize that many Americans don't know where to turn for help with skyrocketing prescription drug costs. I don't know how much this program will help, but surely it can't hurt," Grassley said. "In the meantime, I'll continue to support drug importation as a way to cut costs for American consumers."
Dozens of organizations, such as Easter Seals, the United Way of America, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, are listed as partners with the drug manufacturers in the new program. The manufacturers, however, provide the financing.
Dr. Mary Frank, president of the Academy of Family Physicians, said she had no idea so many programs existed in the public and private sector to help patients afford their medicine. The partnership puts 1,200 medications, including generics, under one access point, she said.
"This will give our patients access to so many more (medicines)," she said.
Miles White, CEO of Abbot Laboratories, said drug companies decided about 18 months ago that they needed to alter their agenda from advocacy to solving problems of affordability. Their answer was a clearinghouse designed to eliminate so much of the confusion about the myriad programs available to the poor as well as to those suffering from a specific type of disease.
Tauzin said the companies would continue to oppose legislation that they believe would place less emphasis on free markets and more emphasis on government price controls.
"The reason why PhRMA supports the free-market system is that it's the last bastion that rewards innovation," Tauzin said. "But we realize that if we're going to retain that system, we can't leave people out simply because they're impoverished."