As a pediatrician in a community clinic, Dr. Scott Williams had a lot of experience treating children from lower-income families. He'd diagnose their ills, write out a prescription, then watch their parents' faces fall because they knew they couldn't afford the medicine.

As a pharmacist, Greg Jones had a lot of calls and visits from senior citizens who needed expensive medications month after month and simply couldn't afford them.

Williams, now director of the Utah Department of Health; Jones, director of pharmacy at Harmons Grocery Stores; and Sen. James Evans, R-Salt Lake, teamed up this week to introduce a statewide program to help Utahns, regardless of age, access drug-assistance programs run by pharmaceutical companies.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill, sponsored by Evans, requiring the Utah Department of Health to come up with a program to connect needy Utahns to programs that offer discounts, set co-payments or free medications. The bill included funding for two full-time staffers in the Health Department to take calls on the information, referral and resource line, called RxConnect Utah. And it allowed the department to partner with others to make the program work.

The American Association of Retired Persons and pharmaceutical companies have contributed, as well.

Paying for medication is a major issue for many people, Jones said. From 1990 to 2001, the cost of prescription medications tripled. The average cost, including both brand name and generic medications, is about $45.

He said people who have tight budgets often skip medications or try to stretch a two-week supply to last a month.

"Medications just don't work that way," he said.

There are roughly 20-30 programs offered by different pharmaceutical companies out there, said Williams. Each has different eligibility requirements and benefits, so there's no way for families, the doctor or even the pharmacy to keep track of all of them. That's why it's important to have a central location that families or physicians can call to find out if they can get help.

Not all medications have discount or free programs behind them. And the new program will not solve all the access-to-medication problems, Jones said.

But Evans believes if all the drug-manufacturer programs were used as fully as possible, needy Utahns could save millions overall in medication expenses.

Because the health department is running the information line and tracking data, it should be able to tell what populations use the line and whether there are further barriers that can be torn down to allow people to get the medicines they need, Williams said.

To find help for prescriptions you can't afford, call RxConnect Utah at 1-866-221-0265 or at www.health.utah.gov/rxconnectutah


E-mail: lois@desnews.com