NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 3, 2008

The poor and uninsured are actually less likely to get free samples of prescription drugs  than their wealthier, insured neighbors.  But it may not be for lack of effort by doctors, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, from physicians at the Cambridge Health Alliance hospital system and Harvard Medical School, looked at data collected on more than 32,600 Americans in a federal survey of consumer health spending.  They homed in on a question of about whether they had received "any free samples of prescribed medicines from a medical or dental provider."

According to the researchers:

  • About 12 percent of patients got free samples in 2003.
  • But they were less likely to get them if they earned less than $36,800 for a family of four or were uninsured, non-white, Hispanic, born outside the United States, or if you didn't speak English.
  • Medicaid patients were among the least likely to get free samples, at just 4.1 percent.

But many docs seem to try to target free prescriptions to the neediest patients.  Among those who get medical care in a doctor's office, as opposed to a clinic or emergency room, uninsured patients were in fact more likely to get free samples, the study found.  In other words, the uninsured probably get fewer free samples because they see the doctor less often, and typically do so in clinics or an ER.

In short, the neediest patients aren't going where the samples are, said Sara L. Cutrona, a hospitalist and the lead author.  Put another way, she said, "perhaps the places the drug reps are targeting are not where the needy patients go."

The upshot is that some poor and uninsured individuals certainly benefit from drug giveaways, but "on a nationwide scale, that's not what free samples are doing," Cutrona said.

Source: Theo Francis, "Poor Get Short Shrift on Drug Samples," Wall Street Journal, Health Blog, January 2, 2008.

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