TRENTON, N.J. — As the furor over soaring prescription drug prices escalates and outrageous price hikes by several smaller drug makers give the entire industry a black eye, the biggest US drug maker is expanding financial assistance to patients.
Pfizer Inc. said Thursday that it is doubling the allowable income level for people to receive dozens of its medicines without a copayment because more patients are in need. But some critics say this isn’t the best way to keep drugs affordable for everyone. Insurance plans generally pay for most of the cost.
‘‘It’s not addressing the price of the drug,’’ said Clare Krusing, a spokeswoman for the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans. ‘‘This is the wrong approach when you consider the cost impact that patients have on the back end,’’ because insurance plans eventually raise patients’ monthly premiums to compensate, Krusing said.
She added that drug makers’ widely used coupon programs, which either cover patient copayments for a specific brand-name drug or limit the copayments to a small amount, usually are temporary, lasting a year or so.
Insurers and others say such programs raise overall health spending, particularly the ones that nudge patients to stay on brand-name drugs when cheaper generics are available.
New medicines for cancer, hepatitis C, and rare diseases can carry list prices of $100,000 or more for a year or for a course of treatment, though insurers often get big discounts. Meanwhile, insurance plans increasingly require patients to pay a large percentage of the price for the costliest drugs, rather than a fixed monthly amount.
Pfizer’s move comes amid fierce criticism by patients and politicians, as well as a growing number of government investigations, of six-figure prices for new medications and huge price hikes on old ones with little or no competition — up to 5,000 percent, for a drug for a life-threatening parasitic infection Turing Pharmaceuticals sells. Turing, Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, and a handful of others have been accused of price gouging.
Meanwhile, a wave of mergers threatens to further limit competition, the main control on prices.
Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s business school, said drug makers face ‘‘a wave of hearings and public beatings’’ over exorbitant drug prices. ‘‘If you’re Pfizer, you want to look like you’ve made a voluntary, charitable move before you get beat up’’ in a hearing, he said.
Most drug makers offer financial aid to patients, particularly when pricey drugs are first launched and the companies are trying to get patients to start taking them. The industry’s 20-year-old Partnership for Prescription Assistance connects patients to about 475 assistance programs, nearly 200 of them run by drug makers.
Pfizer’s chief executive, Ian Read, said the New York company isn’t boosting assistance due to the heightened scrutiny of prices, but because more patients can’t afford needed medicines. He said Pfizer is ‘‘responding to challenges patients are having.’’
He cited insurance plans that now shift more costs onto patients through higher copayments and deductibles that must be met before coverage kicks in, plus some Affordable Care Act exchange plans and insurance formularies that exclude pricier prescription drugs.
‘‘There are people who are falling through the cracks through no fault of their own,’’ Read said. ‘‘As a stopgap, we’re willing to do this.’’
Under the Pfizer RxPathways program, the company will cover copayments for 44 medicines for both uninsured and underinsured patients earning up to four times the federal poverty level, up from twice that level. The new limits are $47,080 annually for a single person and $97,000 for a family of four.
The program covers many popular Pfizer brands.