(Minneapolis, MN) – A new program sponsored by pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies aims to help uninsured and underinsured Minnesotans who can't afford to pay for their prescriptions.

The Minnesota Drug Card, available to anyone in the state, will save consumers an average of 30 percent on prescriptions, according to Kyle Joseph, program development director for Minnesota.

"There are a lot of (insurance) plans that don't offer prescription coverage, and there are other people who are uninsured entirely," Joseph says. "This program is for them."

The goals of the program are twofold, he says: Help people pay for prescriptions, and create new customers for pharmacies. Because many retail pharmacies are losing customers to mail-order and online pharmacies, the program aims to bring more customers into local stores.

Minnesota is the 22nd state to join the drug card program; an additional 12 are expected to be up and running within a month or two, Joseph said. The program's supporters hope to see drug cards available nationwide.

"We go into each market and check to see if there's a need for the program," he says. "There are certainly other (prescription) discounts out there, and this isn't meant to compete with those. We just want to get the customer the best price, regardless of what program they use."

The program works like this: Anyone can go to the Minnesota Drug Card website, www.minnesotadrugcard.com, entire their name and e-mail address and download a pre-activated card. The user takes the card to a participating pharmacy and presents it when buying prescriptions.

Anyone without Internet access can go to any Cub Foods pharmacy location and sign up for the program there, Joseph says. Because Cub is the state's "preferred pharmacy" for the program, those are the only locations where residents can sign up on site.

Users can go online to access the names and locations of participating pharmacies, along with drug prices available under the program. Other participating Minnesota pharmacies are CVS, Kmart, Hy-Vee, Pamida, Shopko, Thrifty White Drug, Walgreens and a handful of independent pharmacies.

There are no age or income restrictions, and users with pre-existing medical conditions are also eligible. Although the program was started to help people afford prescription medications, it can be used by those with medical coverage, but patients can't use both discounts for a single prescription.

The card can also be used by those who are covered under government programs or through charity care providers, although they also would have to choose which discount to use for a single purchase.

Under the drug card program, some prescriptions will still cost more than with other discounts, but Joseph says generic prescriptions will be "considerably cheaper" – sometimes as much as 75 percent.

A recent price comparison of 10 commonly prescribed medications through three sources — Drugstore.com, CanadaPharmacy.com and Cub pharmacies, using the drug card – showed savings only on the generic drugs. In every case, the prices through CanadaPharmacy.com were the cheapest, although three of the medications that were checked – Zoloft, Lanoxin and Viagra – were not available through CanadaPharmacy.com.

Joseph did not respond to subsequent requests for statistics about prescription savings, how many Minnesotans they expect to participate in the program or how much money is being spent within the state to promote it.

The cost of the state drug card programs is borne entirely by participating pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies, Joseph says.

"There are a number of different advantages" for the sponsors, he says. "The most compelling factor is that we provide the uninsured population with a discount prescription plan which will help them afford their medications. As a result, this program creates new customers for pharmacies."

The program is overseen nationwide by United Networks of America, which describes itself as one of the largest providers of value-added managed care products and services in the nation, including dental, vision, hearing, prescription drugs, massage therapy, weight loss and cosmetic surgery. The network's website says it has more than 240,000 participating providers serving more than 39.7 million members; it says it saved members $687.8 million in 2007.

United Networks runs the plan through its pharmacy-benefit management division, UNA Rx Card, which works like other pharmacy benefit plans such as those used by employers and labor unions. Pharmacy benefit managers negotiate rebates with drug companies and discounts with pharmacies.