A prescription-drug discount card launched Tuesday will give many Missourians-regardless of age, income or insurance-discounts of up to 75 percent on hundreds of brand-name and generic medications.

The average savings is expected to be about 30 percent, according to promoters of the card. Patients can sign up online or at a Schnucks or Kmart Pharmacy. Those pharmacies also will be instructed to tell patients about the program if they haven't heard about it.

"The Missouri Drug Card has no participation requirements or income restrictions," said former state Supreme Court Judge Ronnie L. White, who will work as the program's director.

The card is accepted at more than 50,000 national and regional pharmacies, including chains such as Walgreen Co. and smaller independents. Lists of participating pharmacies and drug prices are available at www.missouridrugcard.com

Similar programs, run by the same private company and funded by drugmakers and pharmacies, already operate in about two dozen states. The first launched about two and a half years ago.

The company, United Networks of America, plans to start a program in Illinois by year's end, said Ryan Jumonville, its chief executive. United Networks is based in Baton Rouge, La.

While the drug-card program was started to help the uninsured and under-insured gain access to expensive medications, it also can be used by people with medical coverage. But patients cannot use both discounts for a single prescription.

Many high-deductible plans do not include pharmacy coverage. And, as more pharmacy-benefit plans restrict access to certain medications, patients could use this card to obtain discounts on those drugs. In a few instances, according to a quick comparison with Drugstore.com, there were no savings using the Missouri Drug Card.

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

Pat Smith, 74 and a resident of bridgeton, has Medicare prescription coverage but still feels her asthma inhalers are too costly. "I have to pay big bucks for them." she said.

Smith has signed up for other discount drug cards in the past, only to realize that her medications weren't covered. So while this program might be helpful, she is concerned that the same frustrations will arise.

With this program, patients who require brand-name medications and were discouraged by drug cards that focused on generics might find more help.

United Networks runs the plan through its pharmacy-benefit management division UNA Rx Card. The program works similarly to other pharmacy-benefit plans, such as those used by employers and unions.

In both cases, pharmacy-benefit managers negotiate rebates with drug companies and discounts with pharmacies. In most cases, drug companies and pharmacies, cut the deals to drive traffic to their medications and stores.

Jumonville said that in the case of this program, the motivations were different. Some patients were going to Canada to find less-costly medications, and he said those trips are becoming less frequent in teh states where this program exists.

Pharmaceutical companies, he said, "realize that they need to do something here in the States."

Meanwhile, he said, retail pharmacies are losing market share to mail-order pharmacies. This program brings more customers into their stores while building good will.

Jumonville said the Missiouri Drug Card will not sell patient kinformation or try to steer patients to certain medications. Differences in discounts, he said, are based on market conditions.

When UNA started its first drug-card program in Louisiana, it found challenges. Income restrictions and paperwork discouraged many people from applying, Jumonville said. So UNA made the process easier by allowing some pharmacies to process membership cards.

Comparing Drug Prices
Drug Drugstore.com Missouri Drug Card
Atenolol (50 mg, 30 tablets) $12.99 $9.22
Carisoprodol (350 mg, 90 tablets) $31.99 $14.75
Cephalexin (500 mg, 30 capsules) $12.99 $8.98
Lisinopril (20 mg, 30 tablets) $13.99 $11.83
Lorazepam (1 mg, 90 tablets) $43.99 $13.16
Viagra (100 mg, 6 tablets) $87.00 $87.36

Details About The Drug Card

Who is eligible?
All Missourians are eligible. There are no income or age restrictions.

How do I enroll?
There is no application process. Just print out a card at www.missouridrugcard.com. Those without access to the Internet can go to a Schnucks pharmacy or a Kmart pharmacy.

Who pays for the discounts?
The program is funded by pharmacies and drug companies.

Which medications are covered and how big are the discounts?
A complete list of the medications and their prices is available at www.missouridrugcard.com.