Free Prescription Drugs

The question: What are they serving up in that van parked around the corner?

The Partnership for Prescription Drug Assistance, run by the drug industry trade group PhRMA, is currently sending vans across Texas and New Jersey, dispensing free drugs at every stop. Long lines are being reported at these stops as the record numbers of uninsured individuals desperately seek assistance in obtaining needed medications.

Drug Dispenser

The Dispensary of Hope is also reporting sharp increases in the number of people lining up for free medications in their dispensing locations across Tennessee. The effects of the recession – unemployment and loss of medical coverage – have led to a 50%+ jump in the number of individuals clamoring for free pills, potions, and powders.

The good news for these people is that, so far, the supply of medications is meeting the surging demand.

Where do these drugs come from?

The Dispensary of Hope acquires their drugs via a “Netflix”-like model where they supply bins to participating physicians. These physicians will fill those bins with surplus prescription samples that they routinely receive from pharmaceutical-industry reps. When the bin is full, it is sent to the Dispensary of Hope dropoff location where it an empty bin will be sent back to the physician. The drugs are then packaged and sent out for distribution via van, kiosk, or city street corner. Okay, maybe not actual street corners…

While I do certainly understand the fear and desperation that a lack of medical coverage can cause, I’m also concerned that this “band-aid” fix of providing free medications is a program rife with risks. When a doctor prescribes a drug to a patient, that patient is relatively confident that he or she is getting the right medicine at the right dosage to treat their condition. When a pharmacy dispenses that medicine to the patient, that patient is also relatively confident that the bottle contains exactly what it is supposed to contain.

This system of taking close-to-expiration pharmaceutical samples and handing them out to people who can’t afford to go the normal doctor-pharmacy route seems to lack adequate control over the handling and distribution of these medications. The opportunities for mistakes in medicines supplied, dosages recommended, and expiration date control are huge.

And tampering? It seems like there are alot of hands touching those drugs before they ever reach the consumer. Remember the Tylenol poisonings?

I don’t know what the answer is. My first reaction is to lobby for the FDA to step in and put some rigor around the free drug programs. But the FDA is currently as screwed up as any agency out there and is too busy trying to stem the loss of their top people to the big pharma companies. That’s a whole ‘nother column.

If you were unable to obtain prescription medicine through the traditional doctor-pharmacy channel, would you accept handouts of free meds from a van driving through your neighborhood?