Recession got you down? Having second thoughts about filling that prescription? How about some help with your co-pay?

That’s the tack Bristol-Myers Squibb is taking with its Orencia Promise program, by which BMS offers to cover patient co-pays for the first six months (or 8 infusions) of the drug. The company will even cover the first co-pay of another drug, up to $500, if patients are unsatisfied. And instead of being relegated to an afterthought in the voiceover at the end of a spot, BMS is giving the program prominent placement in its consumer advertising for the brand, with TV, print and online ads by MRM Worldwide extolling the offer. The program is available to first-time patients with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis and private insurance that covers the drug. Consumer advertising broke in February, and the company is detailing docs on its availability.

“It’s a very straightforward offer-driven campaign,” says Marc Weiner, managing partner at CommonHealth and head of the network’s consumer business. “I think you’re going to see more of that than ever before. Price promotions, offer-driven communications and guarantees are going to be much more the norm.”

The deep economic slump has upended the truism that the drug industry is countercyclical, immune to the ups and downs of the broader economy, as sales trends indicate many Americans are splitting pills or putting off filling prescriptions altogether. According to IMS Health data, US drug sales fell 2.2% between November and December by dollars, and are expected to be more or less flat for 2009.

Even before the economy went south, a number of companies began running discount and coupon offers, in addition to their access and affordability programs for the uninsured, aimed at consumers with insurance who might otherwise go generic or try to tough it out. With economically insecure consumers pinching pennies and taking a hard look at co-pays, the use of such offers has intensified.

It’s hard to find a big brand that isn’t offering to shave a few dollars off the retail price these days. For Symbicort, AstraZeneca offers up to $20 off per co-pay for up to 12 months, or $240 per year. Patients on Schering-Plough’s Nasonex can save up to $10 per prescription or $120 per year through coupons. Sanofi-Aventis’ 7-Night Invite program offers Ambien CR patients savings of up to $100 on five refills of the drug.   

In October, IMS Health lowered its projection for 2009 US drug sales growth, to 1%-2% from the 2%-3% earlier expected, due to lower-than-expected demand for newer drugs and to the recession, “which appears to be having an impact on doctor visits and pharmaceutical sales,” said the data firm.