WASHINGTON – New prescription drug discount cards (search) designed to save cash for low-income Americans went public Tuesday as ten major drug manufacturers announced they are going to help uninsured consumers save money.
Beginning next month, people who qualify can start receiving 25 to 40 percent or more off more than 275 brand name prescription drugs and an array of generic drugs produced by the large pharmaceutical companies.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the decision by the big drug makers to offer breaks could persuade uninsured Americans to buy their medications in the United States, rather than crossing over to Canada or using foreign companies on the Internet.
"I think this is a giant step forward by the industry to be able to give individuals a break — 25 to 40 percent — and that's pretty much the kind of break that you would get by purchasing drugs from Canada," Thompson said in announcing the Together Rx Access Card (search) program. "I think this certainly supplants and probably replaces the need for low-income Americans to go to Canada to get their drugs."
The 36 million people eligible for the program comprise about 80 percent of the 45 million uninsured Americans with no drug coverage. To be eligible, those who enroll must be under age 65, ineligible for Medicare coverage, without other drug coverage and with a household income equal to or less than $30,000 for individuals, $40,000 for couples and $60,000 for a family of four. Participants must also be legal U.S. residents.
The program is "a commonsense, pragmatic way to give the uninsured access to prescription medicines," Thompson said. "I'm sure there are some cynics out there who will say it's not enough, but it's a wonderful program."
In fact, several groups say it isn't enough, but it is a good start.
"I think what these drug companies are doing is very commendable and it will be of benefit to people who are uninsured," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the health care reform group FamiliesUSA (search). "Of course, it's nowhere near being an adequate substitute for our nation making a real commitment to expanding coverage for the 45 million who don't have coverage today."
Pollack added that getting the drugs to the public may not be as easy as proponents think.
"If you're uninsured, you may not be able to afford to go to a doctor, so you won't get a diagnosis and you won't get a prescription, and so a discount for something that you can't get prescribed for you is not going to help you," he told FOX News.
Organizers, however, say they are excited about the program, even though they don't know how much it will cost them. That will depend on how many people enroll. The drug companies say whatever the cost, it's unlikely to hurt and it's the price of being socially responsible.
"To us, I think, this is a net wash," Patrick Kelly, president of Pfizer's U.S. pharmaceutical business, said of the cost to his company's bottom line.
"We want to do good for the people in need. Our shareholders, frankly, expect us to do this — not just to run a successful organization," said David Martin of Johnson & Johnson.
Seven of the 10 participating pharmaceutical companies already offer some form of discount card to low-income seniors, a program that was set up in 2003. Pfizer also has a separate savings program that reduces prices 37 to 50 percent on their products.
Discounts will be set up by the drug companies as well as pharmacies so savings could vary from store to store. But pharmacists say they are overwhelmed by the constant variations in drug prices for every single customer that comes through the door.
"Sometimes patients will walk into the pharmacy, it's like they have a deck of cards," said Ernest Boyd, executive director of the Ohio Pharmacists Association (search) in Dublin, Ohio. "They'll say they just want prices on each of the drugs and ask which card is cheapest for each."
Boyd said some pharmacies have started limiting customers to requesting the best price on only two drugs each visit.
Among the most popular drugs included in the program are Lipitor, Celebrex and Zoloft, all produced by Pfizer.
Lipitor now costs about $65 a month, but cardholders may get it for $40-$50 per month. The heartburn drug Nexium, by AstraZeneca, now costs about $126 per month without a discount, but that could drop to $75 to $95 for card participants.
Those who qualify for the new program can enroll by visiting the Web site, www.TogetherRxAccess.com, or by calling 1-800-444-4106.
Companies participating in the program include Abbott; AstraZeneca; Bristol-Myers Squibb; GlaxoSmithKline; Janssen Pharmaceutica and Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, Inc., part of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies; Novartis; Pfizer; sanofi-aventis Group; Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America, Inc.; and TAP Pharmaceutical Products, Inc.
FOX News' Molly Henneberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.