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American households annually spend more money on health care than on education and entertainment combined, with more than $200 billion alone going toward the purchase of prescription drugs, according to The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care research and communication group.
As health costs and unemployment soar (an estimated 45 million people in the U.S., including eight million children, do not have health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), it has become ever tougher for people to afford medical treatment, forcing some to not to fill prescriptions or to skip doses, thereby reducing therapeutic benefits as well as upping the opportunity for antibiotic resistance, according to Kaiser.
In an effort to increase access to prescription drugs, retailers and pharmaceutical companies are increasingly offering medicine at dramatically lower price tags and, in some cases, free of charge.
Discount giants Target and Wal-Mart in 2006 began selling 30-day supplies of generic prescription drugs to customers for $4 (and K-mart for $5); for a 90-day supply, the chains charge about $10. The low-cost program began in a handful of their stores but is now available in all of their locations with pharmacies. Some local supermarkets with pharmacies, meantime, are now providing generic brand antibiotics at no cost.
Some drugmakers have been offering free and reduced-rate prescriptions for decades to those who qualify based on financial need. They also hand out about $16 billion worth of free prescription samples to doctors each year. Many consumer advocates and physicians have applauded the results.
"Anything that helps anyone afford their prescription drugs is a good thing," says Cheryl Matheis, a senior vice president for health strategy at AARP, a membership organization and advocacy group for those 50 years of age or older. But, she says it will take a lot more to fix the nation's health care woes. "You can relieve the symptom, but you're not really attacking the problem," of millions of Americans who are struggling to pay for food and shelter—let alone their meds. "It's a Band-Aid approach to an issue that's growing."
Some experts also bring up health concerns about dispensing antibiotics at low or no cost, which they fear may lead to overuse and add to the growing problem of "superbugs" that have developed resistance to some antibiotics. The reason, says Laurie Hicks, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): physicians may be more easily swayed by insistent parents to prescribe free antibiotics even though a kid has a viral (as opposed to a bacterial) infection for which such drugs are useless.