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Free prescription drugs? But how do they do it?


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2001

It sounds too good to be true -- free prescription drugs just for the asking.

But that's what the pharmaceutical industry offers when all the right pieces fall into place.

Last year, 2.5-million needy Americans -- most of them elderly -- received free drugs from 50 of the largest manufacturers, according to industry spokesman Jeff Trewhitt. About 150,000 recipients lived in Florida.

The theory behind this Patient Assistance Program is simple. Patients who can't afford their medicine ask their doctors to fill out application forms and, voila, a three-month supply arrives in the mail.

Yeah, yeah, and do I have a bridge and a few Medicare HMOs to sell you.

In truth, the program is poorly publicized and often unwieldy. Some doctors are so put off by a maze of rules and paperwork that they won't cooperate even when a patient asks.

Each manufacturer has its own eligibility standards. Some limit the program to patients near the federal poverty level; others accept patients with incomes of more than $25,000 a year, which covers two-thirds of Americans older than 65. Some require a raft of financial documents; others accept a doctor's word that the patient is needy.

Some common drugs, such as the thyroid medicine Synthroid and the Alzheimer's drug Aricept, are available under assistance programs and can save patients hundreds of dollars a year. But other drugs aren't available.

"Some of the real basic medicines are not easy to get," says Largo geriatrician Richard Orlan. "There are a lot of different blood-pressure medicines, and you may be able to get one."

Paperwork can easily take 15 minutes to fill out, a hefty commitment of time for busy doctor's offices. Two months can pass before a manufacturer mails the medicine or rejects an application.

Orlan's staff maintains a big grid on the wall to keep track of which medicines qualify so he can tailor his prescriptions toward free meds whenever possible. He estimates that roughly 40 percent of his patients now receive some or all of their drugs without charge.

The Web site is designed to help doctors and patients navigate the shoals of patient assistance programs. With the blessings of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association, it can tell you what meds are available and where to write for applications. Staff in doctor's offices can also go online to fill out applications for a few big drug companies.

If you don't have a computer, it takes longer to find out whether your medicines qualify. First, get a list of participating manufacturers by writing to:

* * *

2000-2001 Patient Assistance Directory

Public Affairs Division, PhRMA, Suite 900

1100 15th St. NW

Washington DC 20005

* * *

When the directory arrives, check your pill bottles for the name of the manufacturer and call or write to find out whether your medicine qualifies. If so, ask for an application, which your doctor must fill out and mail in.

Then do me a favor. Let me know how this works out for you. How long did it take? Did it save you money? Did your doctor cooperate? Let's find out how well these programs work.

* * *

ALZHEIMER'S LINK: The way Alzheimer's research has exploded in recent years, we probably will see effective drugs, vaccines and, dare we say, cures by the end of this decade. The next big step is pinpointing which people to treat.

Just as high blood pressure and high cholesterol are precursors of heart attack and stroke, doctors need to identify the risk factors that lead to Alzheimer's disease. We can't be popping powerful medicine every time we forget our keys.

Last month's issue of Science contained hopeful news. Three different studies, including one at Jacksonville's Mayo Clinic, indicate that the human chromosome 10 may contain a genetic marker for late-onset Alzheimer's. If so, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s could be tested to determine whether they are likely to contract the disease in their 70s and 80s. Early intervention could then prevent brain damage.


* * *

HOLD THE PIZZA: As if we needed new reasons to watch our diet, now comes word from academia that correlates food intake to lifespan.

Scientists at Harvard University switched off a gene in roundworms that makes them want to eat. The worms still took in enough calories to survive, and survive they did, living to the human equivalent of 240 years.

At the University of Connecticut, researchers altered a gene that controls how fruit flies store and use energy, essentially slowing down their metabolism. The flies lived about 70 days instead of their normal 37.

No one is pushing anorexia here; good nutrition is a must. On the other hand, maybe there's a reason you don't see too many 90-somethings in the all-you-can-eat line.

* * *

EYE ON THE LEGISLATURE: Some lobbying groups wield influence with gobs of cash. Others purport to speak for a large group of voters. This legislative session, AARP will bolster its populist image with e-mail alerts, informing members instantly when topics of interest arise.

"We will not advocate for the positions of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians or any other partisan group," says legislative director Lyn Bodiford. But on issues such as driving restrictions on people older than 65, senior cyber power will kick in. To get on the alert list, e-mail Put "Instant alert" in the subject box and list your name, city, ZIP code, phone number and fax number, if you have one.

- Stephen Nohlgren, who writes about aging and retirement, can be reached at (727) 893-8442, (800) 333-7505 ext. 8442, and

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