- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

Seven top pharmaceutical companies announced yesterday an alliance to offer prescription-drug discounts to low-income Medicare recipients.
The companies officially introduced the "Together Rx" discount card, available to Medicare recipients without prescription-drug coverage and with incomes of less than $28,000, or couples making less than $38,000. Card carriers will save between 20 percent and 40 percent on about 150 drugs from top pharmaceutical firms Abbott Laboratories, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers Squibb Co., Aventis, Astra Zeneca and Novartis.
McKeeson Corp., a top retail distributor, will administer the program. Major drug companies Merck, Pfizer and Eli Lilly are not involved.
Health care organizations, including AARP and the National Health Council, praised the drug makers for offering more prescriptions than other plans already in place. No other industry measure includes discounts on as many drugs, or covers as many Medicare recipients. Companies including Pfizer and Merck offer similar plans, but only on their own products and, in the case of Pfizer and Eli Lilly, the income requirements to receive the card are lower. Under Pfizer's plan, only those earning less than $18,000 a year or couples making $24,000 or less are eligible.
"This new card should be helpful to many Medicare beneficiaries because of the expanded eligibility criteria," said Bill Novelli, chief executive of AARP.
But nearly all parties with a stake in the plan cautioned that it was just a temporary measure that must be replaced by a universal Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"The program is being provided until a much-needed Medicare prescription drug benefit is enacted and implemented," the involved companies said in a statement. "While the Together Rx card is an excellent start, it is not the single long-term solution that is needed."
President Bush proposed a national prescription card last summer, but the measure stalled in Congress. Analysts say that as a result of the war on terrorism, Medicare reform has been placed on the administration's back burner.
Though drug costs have caused the president and other officials to seek measures to ensure that lower-income Americans can afford prescriptions, pharmaceutical companies are not required to offer discounts.
Company analysts say the motivation for the plan stems partly from good citizenship, but more likely from pressure to avoid governmental regulation.
"I think what you're looking at is an industry that is trying to put on a friendlier face," said Robert Kirby, an pharmaceutical company analyst with Edward Jones in St. Louis. "I think they're trying to be more proactive. It's a lot nicer to do things on your own than have Congress twisting your arm."
Some of the most popular drugs will not be offered at a discount using the card. Lipitor, a drug used to treat high blood pressure, was the top-selling drug of 2001, but is manufactured by Pfizer. Other popular drugs excluded: the cholesterol-lowering Zocor and the pain medication Vioxx, both made by Merck, and the painkiller OxyContin, made by Purdue Pharma L.P.
Though the Together Rx card is being advertised as a way for Medicare recipients to avoid the confusion of carrying several cards, the absence of Pfizer and Merck in the plan means a "one-card" solution isn't available for many patients, critics say.
Furthermore, some critics say the amount of money saved from the plan is unlikely to make a dent in the expenses of someone with multiple prescriptions.
Health care groups say it's not uncommon for one person to spend $500 a month in prescriptions. For instance, 30 tablets of 180 milligrams of Allegra, a popular allergy medication made by Aventis, cost $66.41, according to Drugstore.com. Paxil, a widely used antidepressant from Glaxo, costs $72 at the same Web site.
"It's hard to fault the companies for doing something useful, but for the typical patient, getting 10, 15, 20 percent isn't going to make a difference if you've got multiple prescriptions," said John Rector, general counsel for the National Community Pharmacists Association.
Spending on prescription drugs has risen at least 17 percent in each of the last four years, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management. Rising sales of the 50 most popular drugs were responsible for about 62 percent of the $22.5 billion increase in retail-drug spending last year.

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