Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Tue Jun 01 2010, 12:24am

Every week in this column, I talk about ways to save money

Every week in this column, I talk about ways to save money. Big Money. Well, there's only one thing better than saving big and that's getting stuff for free. And if that "stuff" is a medication that can improve �or even save–your life, wow, wow wow!

People love to complain about drug companies, but every year the biggest ones each give away more than $200-million worth of prescription medicine, according to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America or "PhRMA," a trade group. Sure, they want to burnish their reputations a bit, but they help a lot of people in the process.

"As an industry, we recognize that a medicine that sits on a shelf out of reach from people financially doesn't do anyone any good," said Ken Johnson of PhRMA.

Here's an example. Veronica W. of Kentucky was one of the nation's first female truck drivers. She loved the freedom of the road --and the solid income. But then, one day while she was taking a break at a truck stop, she had a serious stroke. She couldn't drive anymore and eventually lost her insurance. Thanks to drug company assistance programs, she is able to get about $600 worth of crucial medications for free every month.

Basically, pharmaceutical companies provide free medicines to people with too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford health insurance. Rules vary, but typically an individual making less than $21,000 a year or a family of four living on less than $44,000 would qualify. There's no time limit. As long as your income remains tight, the meds keep coming.

Nearly every pharmaceutical company offers such a program. Some come with fairly easy paperwork; others are more complicated. Some companies require extensive proof that you are unable to afford the medications on your own. Other companies allow you to join the program even if you have a decent-sized income, as long as you are able to prove that the medications are a hardship for you. Once you have qualified, the pharmaceutical company sends the meds to your doctor or pharmacy for you to pick up or ships them to you in the mail.

Applying for pharmaceutical assistance used to be confusing, but now PhRMA the trade organization for the pharmaceutical industry, has a great clearinghouse service called the Partnership for Prescription Assistance. This program will link you with the maker of your drug. Go to for access to more than 475 different assistance programs. The site is easy to use and will give you a great starting point. is by far your best starting point. Be aware that whenever somebody tries to do good, bad guys will piggyback on the cause and try to make some money for themselves. I first heard about pharmaceutical assistance programs when I investigated a company that was pretending to have special connections to the big drug companies and was charging people $200 a month to process their applications for these free programs. Please! Don't fall for it. The assistance really is free.