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Pfizer seizes initiative with US drug discount programme

Published on 15/07/04 at 01:02pm

Pfizer will offer drug discounts to the 43 million Americans without health insurance as it seeks to rebuild its image in an industry stung by pricing criticism.

The 'Helpful Answers' programme of discounts and savings will be the largest offered by any pharma company and Pfizer has called on other manufacturers to follow its example.

Pfizer will offer uninsured families on less than $45,000 per year, and individuals on less than $31,000 per year, an average saving of 37% on its drugs. Above this earnings threshold, the discount drops to 15%, but there are also cash savings on Pfizer medicines at retail pharmacies on offer to both groups.

Hank McKinnell, chairman and chief executive of Pfizer, said: "We are providing choice, simplicity and expanded access to help Americans get the medicines they need.

"We hope that our partners in healthcare, from doctors to hospitals and other pharmaceutical companies, also will find new ways to help those Americans left without health insurance."

America's uninsured population often can't afford to see doctors or, if they can, can't afford to pay for the medicines they are prescribed. About 20% of people without medical insurance rely on hospital emergency rooms as their main source of medical care.

Pfizer's scheme has received bipartisan backing from a number of senators as well as from health and human services secretary Tommy Thompson, who called on all segments of society to work together to help America's uninsured and underinsured.

Debbie Stabenow, Democrat senator for Michigan, said: "While it's not a cure-all, it is a positive action that will help many. I urge other healthcare providers to provide similar benefits for America uninsured."

Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm was one of the driving forces behind America's first multi-state prescription drug pool, which was introduced earlier this year by Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire, Alaska and Nevada to collectively negotiate drug prices.

As well as such local initiatives, pharma companies face the imminent prospect of fully legalised drug re-importation from Canada by consumers seeking cheaper medicines. But it is the ultimate sanction of price controls in the world's biggest market that causes the industry the most concern, hence the industry's desire to rebuild its reputation.

Pfizer's plan will offer help to both people without health insurance whose only recourse is to Medicaid, the federal state aid programme that has only limited prescription drug coverage, and some people on low income who are signed up with the Medicare federal health insurance programme.

For those on low income who are signed up with Medicare and qualify, Pfizer will extend its current initiative of offering a fixed fee of $15 per prescription.

Karen Katen, president of Pfizer global pharmaceuticals business, told the Washington Post that Pfizer will have to wait for six months before it can assess the financial impact of the discounts it is offering. The expense is hard to forecast because it depends on the number of people who enrol, she said.

Ensuring enrolment is the key to the success of any such initiative. But there is bad news from a new study by US research firm Market Strategies, which indicated that only 20% of those eligible for the new Medicare drug benefit programme expect to enrol in it. The programme is due to come online in 2006 and will extend prescription drug benefits to all seniors for the first time.

Market Strategies found that 84% of Medicare beneficiaries are aware of the new Medicare reform legislation, but most are not familiar with the specific provisions and most of those who were aware of it don't believe it will provide them with better coverage.

Given the fractured state of the US healthcare system, the research also highlights the difficulties of educating people about changes that could help them. This problem is already seen by pharma, in the myriad number of different discount cards and schemes that are already offered by companies such as Eli Lilly and Merck.

Pfizer's new Helpful Answers scheme also includes the Pfizer Pfriends initiative, which offers drug discounts to the uninsured as well as the Connection to Care, Sharing the Care and Hospital Partnership Programme schemes. 

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