Even with insurance, prescription drugs can be pricey. Without insurance, the cost may feel so exorbitant you may be tempted to skip or skimp on medication. Don't. There are ways to rein in the costs, and skipping meds can be disastrous and ultimately more costly than the drugs themselves. Use these expert tips to score the lowest possible price on all your prescriptions.
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Confide in your doctor
Unfortunately, with the way our healthcare system is set up, it can be tough to comparison shop—even your doctor may not know what you’ll end up paying for a prescription. But that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t want to help you out.
Although it can be difficult to admit that cost is an issue for you, your physician would probably rather you did. Studies show 20% to 30% of prescriptions are never filled, posing potentially serious health consequences. So if there’s even a small chance you may skip the script because of money trouble, it’s better to say so and work on solutions together.
Michael Munger, MD, a family physician in Overland Park, Kansas, and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, insists that patients should never hesitate to bring up cost: “If you feel like you can’t discuss something like that with me, then maybe we aren’t a good fit.”
Your doctor may be able to switch you to a generic version of the medication you’re taking, prescribe a similar drug in the same class of medication, or try a different drug entirely. If you are eligible for low- or free medication through a pharmaceutical manufacturer’s prescription assistance program (see more on this below), your doctor can help you complete the necessary paperwork.
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Check the app
Depending on your insurer, the copays for two similar medicines may be wildly different. But when your doc writes you a script, how are you supposed to know if that’s the most affordable drug on your plan? Here’s where your phone may come in handy: Many insurers now have apps that can tell you if a lower-cost option is available, says Rich Sagall, MD, president of NeedyMeds, a nonprofit that helps people get access to medication. That way you can look up the drug while you’re in the exam room and ask your doc about cost-effective alternatives on the spot.
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Compare drug prices at local pharmacies, supermarkets, Big Box retailers, online vendors, and mail order pharmacies. Prices vary from chain to chain and even store to store within the same chain, Dr. Sagall says. If you’re using insurance, your copay may not change much by shopping around. But if you’re a cash-paying customer, you can often save a bundle simply by switching where you fill your prescription.
Take advantage of prescription discount programs to keep even more cash in your pocket. At Walmart, for example, many generic drugs are $4 for 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply. Or, as a member of Walgreens Prescription Drug Savings Club, you may qualify for discounts off the cash price on many brand and generic medicines.
If you take two or more drugs, you might even save money filling your prescriptions at different pharmacies. But you lose the benefit of a having a single dispenser tracking potentially risky drug-to-drug interactions if those drugs were prescribed by one than one doctor, Dr. Sagall adds.
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Take advantage of volume discounts
To lower the cost of medicines you take routinely, ask you doctor to prescribe a 90-day supply of medication instead of a month’s worth at a time. Mail-order pharmacies (like Express Scripts and Healthwarehouse.com) and some retail pharmacies give you a price break for buying in larger quantities.
The costs of 30- versus 90-day prescriptions often depend on the insurance company and their rules for reimbursement, so check with the pharmacy to be sure it’s you best deal, says Janet Engle, PharmD, head of the department of pharmacy practice at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy.
Before you place any prescription drug order online, make sure the website is VIPPS-accredited, signifying its commitment to safe pharmacy practices. Avoid using mail-order pharmacies in other countries because “you just don’t know what you’re getting,” Dr. Sagall cautions.
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Get a discount card
Lots of organizations offer drug-discount cards. (If you’re a AAA member, you might already have one in your wallet.) They can get you a break at the pharmacy—up to 80 percent, in some cases—if you’re paying cash, as opposed to using insurance.
Some cards are free; others have fees or eligibility requirements. And the amount of savings you’ll get may vary by
drug and pharmacy, says Dr. Sagall. Two options to consider: Blink Health and ScriptSave WellRx.
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Try a sample
Before you fork over the cost of a month’s supply of a new script for a brand-name medication, see if your doctor can give you a coupon to try it out for free—or at a significant discount. If not, look for coupons online (at GoodRx, for example).
“It’s nice to be able to let the patient have that first month, say, at no cost to make sure they’re going to tolerate it, they’re not doing to develop side effects, that it’s going to have the desired effect,” Dr. Munger says.
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Divide and conquer
Sometimes it’s cheaper to divide, say, a 20-mg tablet into two 10-mg doses—because not all medicines double in price for double the dosage. As long as a pill is “scored” down the middle (meaning it has a visible groove) you can break it in two using a pill splitter. But certain meds are not easily divided, like time-release pills. And you shouldn’t cut pills before you are ready to take them because oxygen degrades each surface. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist.
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Go to the source
If discount cards and coupons aren’t cutting it, you may be eligible to get a drug for free or at minimal cost. Many pharmaceutical companies have patient-assistance programs to help uninsured individuals and people of low or modest means. Under some programs, even people making more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level (that’s roughly $83,000 for a family of three) can qualify, Dr. Sagall notes. To search for a program, go to NeedyMeds.org.
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Review your drug regimen
Sit down with your doctor from time to time to review all the medicines you’re taking for your health and your pocketbook. Maybe one medicine was prescribed to deal with the side effects of another. Or maybe you no longer need to be on three medicines to control your blood pressure when two will suffice.
“I have found in many cases you can actually drop several medications off a medication list and actually have a better result,” Dr. Munger says.
Implementing healthy lifestyle changes can also reduce your medication needs, he says. “We underestimate the power of a healthy diet and regular exercise on almost every chronic disease.”
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Store medications properly
It may seem counterintuitive but don’t store medications in the bathroom where it’s steamy and hot. “This can reduce the potency,” says Engle. “You don’t want to open up an expensive bottle of medicine and see it all clumped together because it’s full of moisture.”
Store your medications in a cool, dry place out of the sun and out of children’s reach. When in doubt, ask your pharmacist for specific advice on storing your medicine. Some may require refrigeration.