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How to get cheap prescription drugs and save money on medications

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, medical expenses top our budget. It doesn’t look like we are alone. According to Census.gov, the typical household (including residents of all ages) spent $3,313 on health care in 2011, compared to $2,771 in 2001, after adjusting for inflation.

To make matters worse for us, recently our insurance company separated the drug benefits to a separate part of the insurance program. Now we can’t just go to the drug store and use our insurance card to get prescription drugs. We have to send it to the online pharmacy that is authorized to deal with all their subscribers’ prescriptions. If we want to get it in the local store, we have to pay extra. Most of the specialty drugs are excluded as well. So I decided to shop around and see if I can save money on prescription drugs.

There are several ways to get cheap prescription drugs.

At your doctor’s office

1.      Ask them to mark the generic substitution box and educate yourself on generics: FDA requires generics to have the exact same active ingredients, dosage, route of administration and efficacy. Going with generics over brand-name prescription drugs, can mean significant savings. So ask your doctor if it is acceptable to substitute brand-name drugs with generics, when available. Most of the time, they will be ok with it. If your doctor is set on prescribing a brand-name drug, he/she will probably explain the reasoning behind their decision. If you don’t agree with the reasoning, feel free to get a second opinion, if not, stick with the prescription. Also the inactive ingredients in the generics need not be the same as the brand-name drug. Some people might be sensitive to these inactive ingredients. For example, I am not sure what Walmart adds in their generics but they never agree with me. I am fine with Target and Costco $4 generics, but Walmart drugs don’t work for me.

2.     Ask for samples: Pharmaceutical reps provide doctors with a lot of sample meds. The doctor might be able to give your first month supply for free.

Cheap prescription drug : Get drug samples from your doctor

3.     Ask for any coupons: For enticing patients to start on a brand-name drug, the pharmaceutical representatives also provide some coupons to subsidize the first month’s supply. The hope here is that due to the low start-up cost you will start using the drug and be impressed/get used to the brand-name drug and stick with it instead of going with generics. If they have a coupon, you can get the brand-name prescription drug for the first cycle and move on to generics for the refills.

4.     Ask for two prescriptions – 30 day supply and a 90 day supply: Whenever I get a new prescription, I need some time to shop around for the best prices and/or it takes time to get them via mail-order. So I use the 30 day prescription to get started immediately and use the 90 day supply to get my maintenance drugs for cheap.

5.     Check with your doctor about splitting a pill: I am afraid to put this in as one of the money saving tips because it can be quite dangerous if not done after careful consultation. But for the sake of completeness, I am adding this tip.  Sometimes pills of double dosage cost only a little more than regular dosage (for example 30 50mg pills of Zoloft cost $153.38and 30 100mg pills cost $156.41, just a couple of dollars more!). So, if your doctor and pharmacist feel it is safe to split the pill, you can save almost 50% off your prescription cost. But please, please consult your doctor and your pharmacist before doing this. Also, splitting the pill with a knife doesn’t work; you will mess up your dose!!! Get a pill splitter, it is ~$2.

Splitting a pill to save money on prescription drugs

At home after you get the prescription

6.     Think more than CVS/Walgreens/Rite-Aid. This was a mistake I made. CVS and Walgreens were the only pharmacies I used during my first few years in the US. I didn’t realize there are still independent pharmacies that provide better service and (sometimes) lower prices. Of course, a lot of the departmental stores now have a pharmacy and provide very competitive prices. I have tried Walmart, Target and Costco. Costco works for the best for me. You can check the price of a drug on the Costco website and their pharmacists are very helpful too. Just give them a call to check the price before you hand over the money to CVS. (Note: You don’t have to be a Costco member to use their pharmacy. Just let the person at the door know that you are going to the pharmacy, they won’t ask for the card. Though, I have found that being a member shaves a few more dollars off the already lower price.)

7.      Look for coupons and rebates: The best way to look for coupons is to check the website of the drug manufacturer itself. I have found that a lot of pharmaceutical companies will provide a coupon for free sample that covers anywhere from between a week to a month’s worth of dosage. If nothing is available from the drug manufacturer, try sites like NeedyMeds or GoodRx that list any store specific coupons for your prescription drug. This works well even for OTC drugs.

 Cheap prescription drugs : Get rebate or a coupon

8.     Discount or copay cards from the drug manufacturer: A lot of pharmaceutical companies have supporting resources for people who take their drugs. The resources range from support groups, educational material to discount/copay cards. They want to compete with the generics market, so they offer copay cards for certain drugs that price match (and sometimes even beat) the generic equivalent.

Cheap prescription drugs : Get a copay card

9.     Drug discount cards: There are several companies that offer a “prescription discount cards”.  Some people say they cost the pharmacy too much money. I don’t have enough information or understanding to make that call. What I do know is the discount can be substantial sometimes. ConsumerWorld did a study on pricing a drug using various discount cards. They found savings ranging from 0% – 71% based on the drug and the discount card. These cards are free, so of course, there is a catch – these cards are basically data mining cards, at least most of them are. I am not sure how much of your personal information is captured and how it is used, so if that makes your uncomfortable, skip these cards. If not, they can provide great savings. Some of these discount cards include – NeedyMeds Drug Discount card, AAA Prescription savings, Costco Member Prescription Program, AARP Prescription discounts, National Drug Card and Together Rx Access card.

Cheap prescription drugs : Get drug discount cards

 

At the pharmacy

10. Check if your pharmacy will match the discounted price offered by the discount card: As I mentioned earlier, it costs the pharmacy money to process your insurance and discount cards. I came to know about this when a pharmacist at an independent pharmacy explained this to me and offered a discount if I paid cash. He matched what the price would have been + an extra $10 if I just skipped using my card. I cannot think that this will work in a big chain pharmacy, but it might be worth a try at least in the independent pharmacies.

11.   Make them bid for your business: I have not used this personally; I read this on Howard Clark’s website – let the pharmacies bid for your business. A site, BidRx.com lets you post the name of your medication and then the independent pharmacies will bid on the price. The site is free to use but you need his referral code to register – “clark”.

12.  Shop around locally: Check the price of the prescription in different pharmacies in your area. Visit at least 3 pharmacies; include both chain stores and independent pharmacies. The price will differ based on your coverage but the pharmacy can give a rough estimate based on your insurance. If you are going to be on the prescription for a long time, it is worth it to do this exercise at least every year as the preferred drug (available discounts) for each pharmacy changes a lot.

Pharmacy

Drug #1

Drug #2

30 day supply 90 day supply Coupon available? 30 day supply 90 day supply Coupon available?
Costco
CVS
Walgreens

13.  Shop online

Let me starting with a warning about online pharmacies – most of them are not legit. Of the over 10,000 Internet sites reviewed, NABP (National Association of Boards of Pharmacy)  found that 97% of the sites fall in the Not Recommended category because they appear to be operating in conflict with pharmacy laws and practice standards. So be very, very, VERY careful when choosing which pharmacy to order from, don’t just look at the prices. I look for prices in this order –

  1. My insurance company’s online drug portal/Mail order pharmacy: Most major health insurance companies now have a mail-order or online pharmacy section that provides low rates for 90 day supply (Example: Aetna) or they might have a separate Pharmacy Benefits Manager that administers the prescription drug benefits (Example: BCBS, my previous insurance company used Medco to manage their prescription drug coverage).
  2. Online prescription filling of major pharmacies: Walgreens, CVS, Rite-Aid, Costco all have mail order services. Most of the time I have found the prices are the same online or in the Brick & Mortar branch of the pharmacy, but it is worth checking to see if they are any cheaper.
  3. Check for approved online pharmacies: I have used Drugstore.com for some of my prescriptions. Online pharmacies offer very competitive prices but the trick is in identifying which ones are real and which ones are “rogue”.  Two sources to check the credibility of an online pharmacy:
    1. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy
    2. LegitScripts

I can’t afford my medication, what should I do?

However expensive they might be, we are blessed to be able to still afford my medication. If you need help, there are several programs that provide assistance to make your medication more affordable. There are certain criteria (income and availability of insurance) that have to be met, but they are usually much higher than the poverty level, so you might be surprised at what you can get qualified (For example, the poverty guideline for a family of 4 is $23,050; but to qualify for Merck Patient assistance, a family of 4 should be earning $92,200 or less).  Here are the links to some major pharmaceutical company’s prescription assistance programs.

I don’t qualify for any Government subsidy so I have not looked up any information on Medicare prescription drug coverage. The National Conference of State Legislation and the Medicare website list all the subsidies and any pharmaceutical assistance programs for uninsured or lower income families and seniors.

Another great resource is NeedyMeds.org, a non-profit that provides a lot of information on the drugs and any assistance available to get them.

Other things to be aware of when bargain shopping for cheap prescription drugs

Pharmacy hopping: Have you ever been asked whether you have any allergies while picking up a prescription? That information goes into the pharmacy’s database. So are the other drugs you are currently taking. If you stick with the same pharmacy, any conflict with the drugs you are taking and the new drug will immediately come up when they try to fill your prescription. That is valuable, so if you find a pharmacy that has most of your drugs for cheap, you might want to stick with them.

Know what is important to you. Some people prefer talking to the pharmacist than following the instructions on the pill box. If you value that consultation, pick a pharmacy that gives you better customer service and has all your health history. There is no point in saving money if you are going to spend more for an ambulance because you overdosed.

There are many ways to save on prescription medication but as the saying goes – An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  It will save a lot more money, time and anxiety if we try to stay as healthy as possible.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

My Financial Independence Journey

I have a number of friends who work in pharmacy so I have a bit of inside knowledge here. Please keep the following in mind.

1. Pharmacists are highly trained medical professionals, not salespeople. You might be able to haggle with an independent pharmacy owner, but not a chain store. Unless you’re a great person to have as a customer, they’d just as soon see you take your business elsewhere than waste 10 minutes debating the price of a drug with you. On the flip side, if you ask them a question about your health, they’ll probably be thrilled to answer you.
2. The pharmacist has no control over, nor knowledge of, the prices of store merchandise. Please don’t waste their time asking why something or other isn’t on sale this week. Those decisions are made by a corporate office.
3. Most generic drugs are fine. Several are not. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist about this.
4. There are many different drugs that can treat the same disease. If your doctor prescribes you an expensive brand name drug that has yet to go generic, there may be a different drug that does the same thing and can treat you. Ask about this.
5. Throw out your expired medications. They will lose efficacy as they age, and a few (tetracycline comes to mind) even become toxic.
6. Don’t ask the pharmacy to price check your medicine if you are going to pay for it with insurance. Thanks to the way that their computers are set up, they can’t get that information without entering all of the prescription information and filing a claim. This takes considerable time and costs them money. Call your insurance company instead.
7. Some drugs are classified as “controlled substances” which mean that there are substantial state and federal regulations on things like how many can be filled or refilled. Please don’t argue with your pharmacist about these kinds of drugs. If it comes down to breaking the law or making you unhappy, the law wins every time.
8. Please be kind to your pharmacist. Most work long days without lunch breaks in a very understaffed environment. Also, most of the public are, well, mean. So a little politeness goes a long way in getting better service.

Reply

Suba

I agree with all of your comments. Yes I don’t think expired drugs or arguing about refills will get anyone anywhere. As I said, it is not worth giving up your life to save money. I hope my plea to be very very careful and consult with the doctor/pharmacist before doing anything will also be taken seriously.

Regarding your point #1, yes I agree they are not salesmen. I don’t mean to haggle with them, but if it saves money for the independent pharmacy (who has the authority to give any discounts) and saves money for him, it doesn’t hurt to ask them if there is anything he can do to make it work. I am not sure how it will work in a chain pharmacy because the employees probably don’t have any power over the prices. That is why I emphasized on independent pharmacies in this case.

The only point I sort of disagree is #6. Yes, it will take some time for them AND the price will be an estimate. But so far, all the pharmacies have helped with a price estimate if I go in a time when no one standing in line. I have tried the insurance company, but they tell me the price if I filed with their mail order service, not my local pharmacy price. If the pharmacy tells me that they cannot do it, I am not going to argue, but that won’t stop me from at least asking what it will cost me before filling my prescription.

Reply

Kim@Eyesonthedollar

As someone who writes prescriptions, I call weekly to have the pharmacist run a patient’s insurance to see what the cost is. No one usually knows what their plan covers, so I’d rather take the time to find out rather than have the patient get to the pharmacy and either a)not pick up the drug because of the cost or b)the pharmacy has to track me down to prescribe something else because the patient can’t afford it. They may not like to do it, but it is easier than having to call and get the prescription changed after the fact when the doctor might be off work and impossible to locate.

Never hesitate to ask the doctor how much something costs. I think it is part of the job to know how much common prescriptions cost. If you don’t have insurance, this is especially important.

Reply

Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter

I have to say I feel very lucky living in Canada where I can get most things covered with private insurance. I really feel for those who aren’t in that situation. Drugs are so expensive.

Reply

Eliza from Happy Simple Living

Thank you for posting such a thorough and well-written article. I got several new ideas about how to save money on prescriptions that I’d never heard of or considered – much appreciated!

Reply

Eliza from Happy Simple Living

Thank you for taking the time to research all of these ideas and write such an informative post. I learned several new strategies, and since healthcare is one of our biggest expenses I’m always interested in how to save money. Great article!

Reply

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