Other retailers have stepped up with free antibiotic deals, which provide common antibiotics at no cost to consumers regardless of insurance status or co-pays. The Midwest grocery chain Meijer launched its program in 2006 and filled a million prescriptions of its seven free antibiotics in the first year. Since then, Publix, Schnucks and other chains have started ongoing free antibiotic programs. This winter, even more retailers, including ShopRite, Wegmans and Royal Ahold (the parent company of the Giant and Stop & Shop chains), have jumped on board to offer select antibiotics gratis through March.
Though most health officials praise the efforts, some fret that providing cheap antibiotics may open the door to more antibiotic-resistant infections.
"While we appreciate the fact that many retailers are trying to assist customers," Hicks says, "there is some concern that this might lead to inappropriate antibiotic use." Although viral infections such as the common cold and flu don't respond to antibiotics, she says, tens of millions of antibiotics get prescribed for exactly those uses by doctors under pressure from patients—or patient's parents—to hand over scrips for them. Such overuse ups the resistance of bacterial infections to antibiotics, which has triggered potentially deadly superbugs such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), or "staph".
The length of some discounted prescriptions also raises flags for Hicks, who works with the CDC's Get Smart program, which is designed to educate the public about the proper use of antibiotics.
A Spoonful of Samples Millions of Americans have been able to skip a $4 pharmacy trip altogether and get free drugs straight from their doctors. Pharmaceutical companies distribute more than $16 billion in free drug samples annually to medical providers. PhRMA in its literature pegs this practice as "an important part of the health care safety net for low-income and uninsured patients," citing a 2003 study from the Journal of Family Practice. A study published in the AJPH last year, however, found that the bulk of free samples were distributed to patients who already had insurance coverage and were more likely to be financially able to purchase a prescription of the drug.
At the end of the day, says Stephanie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the AJPH study, free samples and industry assistance programs are "mostly a way of diffusing much of the anger Americans feel about drug prices…. It's not an overall solution to this problem."
So what is the remedy? "Pharmaceutical companies need to change their business model," Matheis says. And, she says, "We need to have a system where everybody is covered, whether it's private insurance coverage or government-sponsored coverage."
In the meantime, The Help Is Here Express buses continue to crisscross the country to help staunch the growing need of people who are having a hard time paying for their prescriptions.