Arizona Republic, January 8, 2008: Poor, uninsured least likely to receive free drug samples

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Liz Szabo

USA Today

Jan. 8, 2008 12:00 AM

Few patients complain about leaving the doctor’s office with free drug samples. The trial-size packages are popular with doctors, too, who often reserve them for poor or uninsured patients.

A study released last week, however, gives ammunition to critics who want to do away with samples: Most of the free medications, the report says, actually go to wealthier patients who have insurance.

“Everyone likes them,” says study author Sarah Cutrona, a hospital doctor with Cambridge Health Alliance in the Boston area and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “But they really aren’t a safety net. They’re a great marketing tool.”

Patients with the highest incomes were the most likely to get free samples, according to a survey of nearly 33,000 Americans in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Only 28 percent of those who got samples were poor, whether insured or not, with incomes less than twice the federal poverty level – $18,400 for a family of four in 2003, when the survey was taken.

The study doesn’t suggest doctors deliberately discriminate against the poor.

Ken Johnson of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America says studies show 75 percent of physicians frequently or sometimes give out samples to help patients with out-of-pocket costs.

But Cutrona says many poor and uninsured people never get to see a doctor and more often visit public health clinics or emergency rooms, where samples may not be available, or go without care.

Johnson, who in the past has described samples as a “safety net,” says the trial packs still help many patients who have trouble affording their medications.

“Free samples often lead to improved quality of life for millions of Americans, regardless of their income,” Johnson says in a statement.

A growing number of health systems – including Stanford University Medical Center, the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, Kaiser Permanente and others – have banned or sharply reduced their use of samples in recent years.

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