4 Tips to Help You Save on Prescription Medications

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
October 11, 2019
Saving on Prescription Drug Medications

Prescription drugs can be expensive — especially if you’re like many Americans who take two or more. In 2017, Americans spent about $333 billion on medications – a 40 percent increase from what was spent in 2007, according to the National Health Expenditure data.

For the average American, that means shelling out roughly $1,200 on prescription drugs each year, more than any other developed nation, according to Bloomberg.

Many factors are involved in drug pricing. Some revolve around safety and efficacy, while others are more profit driven. For example, it can take up to 10 years and $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. Most pharmaceutical companies submit results from two clinical trials to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); that alone costs on average $19 million. There are additional costs associated with post-market efforts to detect and manage risks such as an FDA-approved drug label, a monitoring system and possibly a Risk Management and Mitigation Strategy (commonly known as REMS). And of course, drug companies pay operational expenses such as salary, overhead and marketing. It takes years to recoup these expenses, which is why medications remain highly priced years after they’ve been approved.

Drug pricing is also opaque. The same drug may be priced differently depending on a patient’s insurance coverage or on the pharmacy that fills the prescription. 

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get a breakdown of the amount of money need to develop a drug, which leaves many patients frustrated because they don’t understand what they’re paying for and why costs are so high,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Without a method of cost comparison, many patients feel powerless to discuss affordable treatment options with their physician.”

Once a drug is on the market, a patent enables a pharmaceutical company to dictate the price of the medication. It also protects the company from competitors, including generic pharmaceutical companies, from developing a comparable or cheaper version of the medication for 20 years. Toward the end of a patent, a company can extend the patent by releasing a new variation of the drug. But even if company lets the patent expire, some medications are simply very expensive to develop and manufacture, so regardless of how many versions of the drug are available, the costs remain high.

“Politicians from both sides of the aisle have been working to reduce pharma costs for years. But it’s such as complex issue. I think it will be a while before patients see some financial relief,” Kaminetsky says. “In the meantime, focus on strategies that can help reduce your costs.”

Here are four tips to help you lower your pharmaceutical costs.

Discuss more affordable options with your doctor. Talk with each of your doctors about the drugs they’ve prescribed to you. If a doctor has prescribed a brand-name drug that requires a high copayment, talk to them about finding a less expensive brand or a generic equivalent.

Ask if an over-the-counter medication exists that could be used in lieu of a prescription variation. Over the last decade, many prescription drugs have become available over the counter, particularly ones that treat allergies, pain, heartburn, bacterial infections and sinus congestion.

You can also ask your doctor for free samples. They may have a short-term supply in the office.

Compare pharmacies. Large retail chains offer many benefits: They’re open seven days a week, offer automatic refills, send refill reminders and have drive-through windows. But they may be more expensive than pharmacies operating at warehouse club stores, discount retailers and supermarkets. Mark-up on medications subsidizes those additional services. If you don’t need these services, look for a different pharmacy. 

If you have multiple prescriptions and have time to shop, visit various pharmacies. Walmart may be cheaper option for certain drugs, where a grocery chain may be cheaper on others.

Mail order and online services may be less expensive. Depending on your insurer’s pharmacy benefit manager, you may be able to get your prescriptions cheaper through a mail order pharmacy. This is especially true of generic drugs. 

But don’t assume -- compare prices first. You may need to get your doctor to prescribe a 90-day supply in order to take advantages of savings, which can mean spending more up front in copays. 

Check out the price without insurance. Don’t simply default to using your insurance. Ask your pharmacist if the retail cost of the medication is cheaper than what your copay will be with your insurer. Sometimes paying full price for less expensive medications like antibiotics and mental health drugs can be cheaper. 

Finally, check out the following pharmacy discount programs:

  • AARP Prescription Discount Card helps AARP members save an average of 61 percent on prescription drugs not covered by insurance. More than 66,000 pharmacies participate in the program. 
  • Rite Aid Rx Savings Program offers a 15 percent discount on thousands of brand name and generic prescription drugs, as well as special discounts at Rite Aid pharmacy. 
  • Costco Member Prescription Program provides discounts to Costco members without prescription drug coverage or taking medications not covered by their insurance. 
  • CVS ExtraCare Pharmacy and Health Rewards program allows shoppers to earn up to $50 in Pharmacy & Health ExtraBucks Rewards per year through shopping and filling prescriptions. The ExtraCare card also links to your CVS.com account so that you can get credit for online activities. Balances reset each year on December 31. 
  • Kmart Prescription Savings Club is $10 per person annually. After enrolling you’ll be eligible for discounts on generic and brand name drugs, flu shots and high-dose flu vaccine, immunizations for shingles, whooping cough and hepatitis A and B and savings on pet medications when accompanied with veterinarian-written prescription. 
  • Target pharmacies are run by CVS in 47 states and honor the CVS ExtraCare Pharmacy and Health Rewards. 
  • Walgreens Prescription Savings Club is $20 per year for an individual membership and $35 per year for a family membership and provides discounts on prescriptions, immunizations, services at Walgreens Healthcare Clinic and a bonus on in-store photofinishing services. 
  • Walmart Pharmacy Services is a full-service pharmacy that offers $4 refills on many prescription medications.  
  • Narcup.com Prescription Discount Card program is for families with children and grandchildren who do not have prescription drug insurance or whose insurance does not cover every medication. Membership fees do not apply.

Use medications as directed. About half of American adults taking medication don’t follow instructions, leading to problems such as poor medication efficacy or development of another condition that can require more medication. Best advice: Save medication bottles and boxes so that you have the instructions. Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions. 

If you don’t have a doctor, consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. MDVIP doctors have the time to work with you to make sure you’re taking the most appropriate medication at the most affordable price. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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