Pfizer to offer drug discounts to uninsured

Break on price to vary with patients' incomes

July 08, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical company, will soon offer its medicines at discounts to the country's uninsured.

Pfizer officials said in announcing the move yesterday that the program would give people without drug coverage the same access to prices leveraged by health maintenance organizations, major corporations and other entities with substantial buying power.

The program, to begin next month, will be available to the uninsured population regardless of age or income, although people who make more money will receive less-extensive discounts. Uninsured families making less than $45,000 will save an average of 37 percent, Pfizer said.

The company estimated that more than 60 million people - including 17 million specifically without drug coverage in addition to 43 million who lack any health insurance - would be eligible.

Pfizer's sales account for 13 percent of the U.S. market, and its products are some of the world's most widely used medicines, including Lipitor for lowering cholesterol, Celebrex for arthritis, Zoloft for depression, Zyrtec for allergies and Norvasc for high blood pressure.

High prescription drug prices continue to rage as a major issue for citizens and politicians. Some are looking for solutions by importing lower-priced drugs from Canada and other countries, or by advocating a greater governmental role in negotiating lower prices.

Such measures are loathsome to industry, and some pharmaceutical companies have expanded their savings programs offered to low-income patients and seniors. Pfizer's focus on the broader uninsured population adds a new wrinkle.

"We're offering an American solution to an American problem," Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell said in announcing his company's plan.

Nearly 40 percent of the uninsured population report being unable to afford medicines prescribed for them, according to Pfizer. Effective treatment, the company said, can hold down overall medical costs by preventing more expensive and otherwise preventable visits to the emergency room.

Pfizer held a press conference to herald its plan, noting support from advocacy organizations and politicians, including both U.S. senators from New York - Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer - and New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

The program - dubbed "Pfizer Pfriends" - will offer an average savings of 37 percent, and as much as 50 percent, on Pfizer medicines for uninsured families earning less than $45,000 a year, or less than $31,000 for individuals. For those who are above those income levels, the average savings will be 15 percent to 25 percent.

As an example, Pfizer said a father earning $41,000 a year and paying $79.58, the average retail price for a month's supply of Lipitor at 10 milligrams, will now pay $52.71.

As part of its announcement, Pfizer also expanded other drug access programs. It will increase the income range for its programs providing free medicines to poor patients. Now, they apply to those families receiving less than $31,000 a year, and individuals making less than $19,000, meaning 2 million more people are eligible.

Pfizer Pfriends will be a card-based program. The myriad public and private discount programs are often criticized for being either difficult to access or to understand. Pfizer said it will provide a toll-free number next month with live operators to answer questions as well as a Web site to help consumers.

Pat Kelly, Pfizer's president of U.S. operations, said the program will cost Pfizer money, but will have a negligible impact to the bottom line.

Also yesterday, Pfizer said it plans to appeal China's decision Tuesday to overturn the company's patent for the male-impotence treatment Viagra.

The Chinese State Intellectual Property Office overturned the patent, granted in September 2001, after a challenge by generic drugmakers, Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins said.

"This decisions concerns us because we think our patent is a strong one," Haskins said. "The decision that was made yesterday was absolutely wrong. This is not the end of the ballgame."

Chinese sales of Viagra, the world's best-selling medicine for erectile dysfunction, are small because the company is able to sell the medicine only in hospitals, Haskins said. Viagra generated $1.88 billion in sales for New York-based Pfizer last year, with $776 million coming from outside the United States.

The patent covered the use of Viagra for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. Pfizer doesn't face any other patent challenges in China, Haskins said.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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