updated 4/7/2009 4:46:43 PM ET 2009-04-07T20:46:43

As the recession grinds on and more people lose health insurance, prescription assistance programs say they've seen a big surge recently of people across the country seeking ways to get their medicines free or at a discount.

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The Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which includes more than 475 different programs sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and other groups, this year has seen an 8 percent to 10 percent increase in requests in most states.

In hard-hit states, it's a lot higher. "In Michigan, we've seen a 25 percent increase," said Ken Johnson, vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America trade group, which founded the partnership four years ago this week. That state has been hurt by layoffs related to the crisis in the auto industry.

PPA buses touring the country to help people sign up for help — usually with Montel Williams or another celebrity aboard — now draw crowds of 50 to 100 in small towns, up from a couple dozen, Johnson noted, and the amount of medicine given away rose more than 20 percent in the fourth quarter.

The partnership program has helped more than 5.5 million people and provided roughly $14 billion worth of free medicine in its four years, Johnson said, adding that about three-quarters of people who apply end up getting help. In general, a family of four with income under $40,000 a year or a family of two making less than $26,000 would be eligible.

Together Rx Access, which offers uninsured people free discount cards accepted at most pharmacies in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, had 88,000 new members sign up for discount cards from January through March. It has signed up nearly 1.9 million members since the beginning of 2005.

At the Patient Advocate Foundation, which touts itself as the most comprehensive patient assistance program, the number of people seeking help or information jumped from 7.3 million in 2007 to 9.5 million in 2008.

It provides a broad array of help related to medical care costs, much of it involving getting patients free prescriptions and assistance with copayments.

"The demand for help is so high that we had to change our entire phone system to prevent it from collapsing," with 20,000 calls coming in some days, Chief Executive Nancy Davenport-Ennis said last week.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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