NEW YORK, May 18 (Reuters) - New York City began offering a new card on Wednesday that lets people buy prescription drugs at big discounts, a step that could potentially increase drug sales and ease strains on the city’s public hospitals.
Residents, tourists, commuters, and people who already have insurance, are all eligible for the new and free BigAppleRx cards, regardless of age, income, or citizenship, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters.
Discounts are expected to average 47 percent. Patients with diabetes could save as much as $831 a year on generic medicines while asthma sufferers could save $667 on inhaler drugs.
Some localities are years ahead of New York City in offering discount drug cards. Neighboring Nassau County, for example, says its program began in 2004 and it saves residents 24 percent off most retail prescriptions and up to 50 percent on generic drugs.
Many pharmacies around the nation offer similar discount cards; HealthTrans Access, which will run the city’s program, has already signed up 10.6 million people around the country.
About 2,000 drugstores in New York City -- 85 percent of the total -- are willing to offer the discounts in return for attracting more business from shoppers who also might buy other items while in the stores, Bloomberg said.
Last year, more than 800,000 New Yorkers said they did not fill a prescription because they could not pay for it, said Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs. Even New Yorkers who have health insurance may have plans that do not cover drugs.
If the new cards enable these individuals to afford the prescription drugs they need, they might be able to avoid seeking emergency treatment at one of the city’s 11 public hospitals, a mayoral aide said.
New York City has one of the nation’s biggest Medicaid programs, whose recipients already get the benefit of lower drug prices. Still, the city’s public hospitals treat 450,000 people a year who lack insurance, said a spokeswoman for the hospital agency, the Health & Hospitals Corporation.
“A lot of our patients can get medication for $2,” she said. “But not all New Yorkers come to the Health and Hospitals Corporation; that’s the benefit of this card.”
For years, the finances of the Health & Hospitals Corporation have been under pressure, and its closing cash balance is expected to fall to $31 million in 2015 from $832 million in 2011, according to a fiscal watchdog.
The list of drug chains that will accept the new cards includes Target (TGT.N). The discount cards can be downloaded at www.bigapplerx.com or obtained by calling 311, the city’s help line. (Reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Jan Paschal)