Pharmaceutical giant Glaxo SmithKline has expanded its program of providing free medicines to low-income and uninsured patients to include vaccines.
The new GSK Vaccines Access Program unveiled Monday provides free vaccines for low-income patients age 19 and older who lack health insurance. The available vaccines are for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or whooping cough. Women ages 19 to 25 also can receive free doses of GSK's cervical cancer vaccine.
"I think it's a good thing they are doing it," said Adam Searing, project director of the N.C. Justice Center's Health Access Coalition. "I would have some question about how much impact it will have."
Income levels set
Children through age 18 are eligible to receive free vaccines under a federally funded program called Vaccines for Children, but no similar program is in place for adults. That, according to GSK, has led to under-utilization of vaccines by adults.
For example, about 12 percent of adults have been vaccinated against hepatitis A and fewer than 25 percent have been vaccinated against hepatitis B, said spokeswoman Sarah Alspach. About 15 percent have been vaccinated against whooping cough.
The new program marks the first time that GSK, which produces more than 30 approved vaccines and has 20 more in development, has offered free vaccines to low-income patients. GSK is providing free vaccines to uninsured single people over age 18 with an income of less than $27,075, or $36,425 for a couple.
"This is another step for us in making sure people have access to our products," Alspach said. "We think timely access to vaccines - and prescription medicines, for that matter - are an essential part of cost-effective and comprehensive medical care."
$507 million in drugs
The British company has its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park and employs about 5,000 workers in this region.
Last year, GSK gave away $507 million worth of drugs to 466,000 U.S. patients. In 2009, the company expanded its give-away program by permitting patients to enroll themselves; previously, patients had to enroll through a nurse or other health-care advocate.
Other drug companies also have beefed up their assistance to low-income patients. Last May, Pfizer announced a program to give away up to a year's worth of free drugs to people who lose their jobs.
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