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Asking For Free Drug Samples: What You Need to Know Posted: April 29th, 2010

By Barbara Marquand

Barbara Marquand is a freelance writer who has written frequently about business and health care topics.

With the price of prescription drugs, it's no wonder patients love the idea of getting free medicine samples from their doctors. After all, if you've got chronic depression, what could be better than a free drug that might help? Or if your teenager struggles with migraines, why not ask for a free sample of the newest drug promising relief?

Physicians often have cupboards full of free medicine supplied by drug companies, which use samples as a marketing tool to familiarize doctors with new products on the market.

But the issue of free drug samples is more complicated than you might think, and a growing number of health systems are prohibiting their doctors from accepting samples from pharmaceutical companies.

Here's what you need to know.

Free Samples: The Advantages

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA) says free drug samples have helped improve quality of life for millions of patients. PhRMA notes that more than 90% of doctors surveyed by KRC Research say free drug samples help them determine whether a medicine works for a patient before filling a full prescription. And most doctors (75%) report that they give out free drug samples to help patients with out-of-pocket costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"Although it is not the intended purpose for samples, physicians often consider a patient's financial situation when distributing such samples," PhRMA senior vice president Ken Johnson said in a recent media statement.

Why Some Doctors No Longer Give Free Samples

Yet some health systems are prohibiting doctors from accepting any freebies from drug company sales reps, including meals, office supplies, and medicine samples. This restriction is meant to prevent conflicts of interest and help keep prescription drug costs down.

Some research questions the safety of free drug samples, especially for children, and indicates that samples actually increase costs long-term. Why? The samples are often for new, expensive medicines aimed at chronic conditions. Once you get used to taking the drugs, the free samples run out. Eventually you and/or your health insurance company end up paying the tab for the medicine.

Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Free Samples

So what should you do? First, don't assume your doctors are being stingy if they don't give you free samples. They might not have any to give if their health system prohibits the practice. Ask about your doctors' policies on free samples, and before you accept one, consider the long-term consequences, and discuss these with your doctor. Is this something you or your child may take for a long time? Is there a generic equivalent to the drug?

Alternatives to Free Samples

Check with the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which provides a single point of access to 475 public and private patient assistance programs.

If you lack health insurance and your child needs medicine, check with your state's Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage for low-income families so children can get preventive care and regular exams.

Barbara Marquand