When the public health emergency around covid-19 ended, vaccines and treatments became commercial products, meaning companies could charge for them as they do other pharmaceuticals. Paxlovid, the highly effective antiviral pill that can prevent covid from becoming severe, now has a list price of nearly $1,400 for a five-day treatment course.

Thanks to an innovative agreement between the Biden administration and the drug’s manufacturer, Pfizer, Americans can still access the medication free or at very low cost through a program called Paxcess. The problem is that too few people — including pharmacists — are aware of it.

I learned of Paxcess only after readers wrote that pharmacies were charging them hundreds of dollars — or even the full list price — to fill their Paxlovid prescription. This shouldn’t be happening. A representative from Pfizer, which runs the program, explained to me that patients on Medicare and Medicaid or who are uninsured should get free Paxlovid. They need to sign up by going to paxlovid.iassist.com or by calling 877-219-7225. “We wanted to make enrollment as easy and as quick as possible,” the representative said.

Indeed, the process is straightforward. I clicked through the web form myself, and there are only three sets of information required. Patients first enter their name, date of birth and address. They then input their prescriber’s name and address and select their insurance type.

All this should take less than five minutes and can be done at home or at the pharmacy. A physician or pharmacist can fill it out on behalf of the patient, too. Importantly, this form does not ask for medical history, proof of a positive coronavirus test, income verification, citizenship status or other potentially sensitive and time-consuming information.

But there is one key requirement people need to be aware of: Patients must have a prescription for Paxlovid to start the enrollment process. It is not possible to pre-enroll. (Though, in a sense, people on Medicare or Medicaid are already pre-enrolled.)

Once the questionnaire is complete, the website generates a voucher within seconds. People can print it or email it themselves, and then they can exchange it for a free course of Paxlovid at most pharmacies.

Pfizer’s representative tells me that more than 57,000 pharmacies are contracted to participate in this program, including major chain drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens and large retail chains such as Walmart, Kroger and Costco. For those unable to go in person, a mail-order option is available, too.

The program works a little differently for patients with commercial insurance. Some insurance plans already cover Paxlovid without a co-pay. Anyone who is told there will be a charge should sign up for Paxcess, which would further bring down their co-pay and might even cover the entire cost.

Several readers have attested that Paxcess’s process was fast and seamless. I was also glad to learn that there is basically no limit to the number of times someone could use it. A person who contracts the coronavirus three times in a year could access Paxlovid free or at low cost each time.

Unfortunately, readers informed me of one major glitch: Though the Paxcess voucher is honored when presented, some pharmacies are not offering the program proactively. As a result, many patients are still being charged high co-pays even if they could have gotten the medication at no cost.

This is incredibly frustrating. However, after interviewing multiple people involved in the process, including representatives of major pharmacy chains and Biden administration officials, I believe everyone is sincere in trying to make things right. As we saw in the early days of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, it’s hard to get a new program off the ground. Policies that look good on paper run into multiple barriers during implementation.

Those involved are actively identifying and addressing these problems. For instance, a Walgreens representative explained to me that in addition to educating pharmacists and pharmacy techs about the program, the company learned it also had to make system changes to account for a different workflow. Normally, when pharmacists process a prescription, they inform patients of the co-pay and dispense the medication. But with Paxlovid, the system needs to stop them if there is a co-pay, so they can prompt patients to sign up for Paxcess.

Here is where patients and consumers must take a proactive role. That might not feel fair; after all, if someone is ill, people expect that the system will work to help them. But that’s not our reality. While pharmacies work to fix their system glitches, patients need to be their own best advocates. That means signing up for Paxcess as soon as they receive a Paxlovid prescription and helping spread the word so that others can get the antiviral at little or no cost, too.