The country's largest patient advocacy group rolled into Salt Lake City on Thursday and announced it had passed a milestone.

The 5 millionth person to be helped by the Partnership for Prescription Assistance is a 27-year-old college student from Salt Lake whose mental illness is kept under control through prescription drugs obtained through the partnership.

Criss-crossing the country raising awareness of medication assistance programs, the partnership of pharmaceutical research companies has helped a total of 30,000 Utahns to obtain prescription medicine since it was organized three years ago, said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, who was at the Capitol to make the announcement.

"There are probably 100,000 more who need our help but don't know about it," he said. "That's why we're back and why we'll keep coming back."

Pharmaceutical companies, which have come under increasing criticism for marketing directly to patients and are often pointed to as significant contributors to the soaring cost of health care, have been direct-helping those who need it most and who most likely either can't afford proper medication or simply aren't sure where to turn to access it, Johnson said.

"Whatever the course or cost of health care, this is a program that works and is welcomed across this country, and people have better lives because of the partnership," Johnson said. "We're just doing what we can to help. By the way, you don't see oil companies or car companies going around trying to help people out."

Critics have also said that big drug manufacturers are the main reason that efforts in various states and by the federal government to fix the health care system have yet to fully materialize. A consultant to Utah's Health Care Reform Task Force who did not want to speak publicly praised the drug assistance effort but said it in a way promotes research and development of medicines that have the net effect of keeping conditions chronic rather than leading to a cure.

"Pharmaceuticals have to step up and become involved in determining what can be done reduce cost and to focus more on prevention of health problems," he said.

To believe that research labs and drug companies aren't interested in prevention or just want people well enough to keep paying "is ridiculous and implies a conspiracy of people who work hard every day and would end disease tomorrow if they could," Montel Williams, PPA spokesman and Emmy award-winning television talk show host, told the Deseret News after speaking at the Capitol.

Williams, who has muscular dystrophy, said the work of the companies in the partnership and his own decision to take responsibility for his health have had positive results. He said critics of the industry are the same kind of people who blame everyone but themselves for whatever is going wrong in their lives.

"There is a sense of entitlement and victimization that I see all over this country," Williams said. "People out there really trying to help and to give back aren't part of that fundamental American problem."

Personal individual responsibility or at least involvement in the course of their health and their health care is what will fix health care, he said. "Not being full participants in your own health or wearing a disease or disability like some kind of badge of honor or handy excuse for why you can't do something is the real health care crisis in the United States."

People have more control than they like to think, Williams said. "And this country can change anything in the blink of an eye if that's what we decide we want. But people tend to want to sit back and do what a doctor says or stay afraid for whatever reason. And their own health, the most personal, most relevant factor in their day-to-day life, is just left up to others."

Those people who would point out that they are not famous or nearly as energetic as Williams "should spend half a day with me. I arrived here in a limo, but the people waiting to hear me speak didn't see me sitting in the back crying because my legs are in so much pain. My response is 'I'll give five minutes today instead of 10, but I won't stand up there and complain about my disability.'

"I was supposed to be bound to a wheelchair five years ago, according to the medical experts who first diagnosed me. But I wouldn't have it and I won't. But I'm not relying on doctors to tell me how I'm going to live my life. No one should, whether you arrive in a limo or walked here."

People could make the biggest single improvement to the health care system by making sure they are not among the seven out of every 10 chronically ill Americans who got sick through lifestyle choices — improper diet, lack of exercise and smoking are the chief ways people put their health at risk.

"Medicines can and do save people's lives, and I'm proud that I can say I'm part of something that has helped 5 million people," Williams said. "No matter what I do in life, I'm sure I will be proudest that I had something to do with that. But if people would just take control of just that aspect of their lives and decide to stay well, most wouldn't ever need prescription medications."

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