Tough times are the perfect time to ask employees for ideas and put those ideas to work. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., New York, did just that when it recently announced that it will offer its medicines for free to unemployed Americans and their families who have lost health insurance.

The inspiration for the new program, called Maintain (Medicines Assistance for Those who Are in Need), came from Pfizer employees who had seen friends, family members, and neighbors struggle to make ends meet after losing their jobs. Jeff Kindler, Pfizer's chairman and CEO, challenged employees to come up with ideas for how the 150-year-old company could be more innovative, both internally and externally, in the current economic climate. An amazing month later the program was launched.

“The current economic environment has added considerable new stress to the daily lives of millions of hard-working Americans, and our colleagues are responding to help their neighbors in the communities where they reside,” said Kindler.

“With the launch of this initiative, we are doing what we can to ensure that recent loss of employment does not preclude people from managing their health.”

The program, which applies regardless of prior family income, will be open for enrollment through December 31, 2009, and applies to eligible Americans who are taking Pfizer medicines and who have become unemployed since January 1, 2009. People who qualify will receive their Pfizer medicines for free for up to 12 months or until they become re-insured (whichever comes first). More than 70 Pfizer primary-care medicines will be available through the program.

Pfizer employees were quick to support and run with the idea of Maintain, which was also quickly supported by the company's senior leadership team. Employees also asked to be able to do their part by donating money to the program — money that will be matched by the Pfizer Foundation.

Pfizer has more than 80,000 employees working in more than 90 countries. This is but one of many innovative practices the company has launched in recent years. Another is adding paternity leave of up to six weeks for births and adoptions. And the company is releasing its new corporate responsibility program soon, entitled “Do the Right Thing.”

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Bob Nelson, PhD, president of Nelson Motivation Inc., is a frequent presenter to management groups, conferences, and events. He is the best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees and The 1001 Rewards & Recognition Fieldbook. Visit for more information.

Did You Know?

Nearly 46 million Americans lack health insurance coverage, and the number is increasing as unemployment rates reach their highest levels in 25 years. An estimated two million more Americans are expected to lose their jobs before the end of 2009.