Free Market Meets Society’s Needs

Published April 1, 2002

Anti-business activists are using the Enron debacle as an excuse to lay the blame for all manner of societal ills at the front door of big business, while calling for more government regulations.

Seems to me government itself is big business, and the amount of fraud going on in Medicare is no less shocking than what happened at Enron. If Medicare were selling on the New York Stock Exchange when billions of dollars in Medicare fraud was exposed, the stock would be worthless today, and thousands of bureaucrats would be out of their jobs.

Enron’s failure should not be an indictment of big business any more than Medicare should be an indictment of all government agencies.

That said, big business, better than big government, has the opportunity to meet needs that no other giant organized entity—particularly one that is taxpayer-funded—can address.

Help for Needy Seniors

In January, another big business—one the media loves to hate, and one frequently maligned by the anti-business crowd—did something so fast and with so little fanfare as to make Congress look like a lumbering political blob.

Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Inc., unveiled a prescription discount drug card that allows low-income seniors to buy all prescriptions filled by a Pfizer medicine for $15 for a 30-day supply. Celebrex, because it is co-marketed with Pharmacia Corp., is the only exception. The Pfizer plan went into effect March 1.

The plan’s eligibility requirements are so simple they must be terribly confusing to the experts at Health and Human Services: You must be on Medicare; your income must be below $18,000 a year if you are single or $24,000 for couples; and you must not have any prescription drug insurance. You apply on a simple form; there is no membership fee and no monthly fee; you pay only for the prescriptions you use. You can fill your prescriptions at any pharmacy you choose. Some seven million of the 40 million Medicare patients will be eligible, with no strings attached to Washington, no Congressional delays due to posturing, no taxpayer assistance, and no chance for obstruction by the likes of Tom Daschle or Ted Kennedy.


Last November, I described in this column how some relatively little-known free-market programs, offered by virtually all pharmaceutical manufacturers, have been making medications more affordable for many years.

More than 60 drug manufacturers have “patient assistance programs” that make prescription medications more affordable for Medicare recipients, especially those with low incomes.

Pfizer, I wrote then, provided free—not discounted, but free—drugs for 600,000 people last year. Under those assistance plans, drug companies provide free medicines for those who have no prescription drug coverage and whose incomes fall below certain levels, regardless of age.

Fast Forward

Today, the best the government can come with is two plans, one by Republicans and the other by Democrats. Both involve so many rules, regulations, and deductibles that even the legislative aides writing the regulations are getting confused.

The federal government’s prescription drug proposals suffer from a malady that afflicts most government programs: casting too wide a net. Governments do not target their social engineering efforts very well. Often, when the government attempts to help one group of people, other groups—less in need of help and perhaps even less desirous of help—nevertheless get it.

Pfizer, unlike Congress, recognizes precisely who needs prescription assistance. About 65 percent of people over age 65 already have some kind of financial coverage for prescription drugs. The remaining 35 percent have no insurance coverage for prescriptions … but that does not mean they can’t afford insurance, or their prescriptions. Some of these individuals voluntarily choose not to buy insurance.

After eliminating those who have prescription drug insurance, can afford to self-insure, or simply choose not to buy insurance, you get to the problem group: poor, mostly elderly, and mostly women.

The Pfizer plan is a free-market example of something government cannot do: It excludes those who do not need help and targets those who need help the most. It requires no new or expanded bureaucracy. Like all great ideas that work, it is uncomplicated.


Some nay-sayers will question Pfizer’s motivation. Let them. Pfizer’s plan is a socially responsible response to a defined social problem. There is no shame in the fact the program may eventually increase Pfizer’s share of the prescription market.

Pfizer’s move is good for consumers … even for those who do not rely on Pfizer medications. Other pharmaceutical manufacturers are likely to follow suit, or they will lose their share of the market. Consumers will benefit from the competition and resultant lower prescription cost. In other words, it is good business all the way around.

While Enron may epitomize what is rare and ugly in the free market, we can look to Pfizer and others and see what is frequent and right in the world of big business. Our free markets, and the millions of citizens who work in them, have made America the envy of the world. No one needs to apologize for that.

For more information …

on free-market prescription assistance programs, see the Web site of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The group’s 2001-2002 directory of assistance programs is available free of charge at