7 ways to save cash on prescription drugs

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The prescription retinoid that my dermatologist suggested sounded like a great idea. It was a topical vitamin A-based cream, which has been shown to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Now that I’m a middle ager, I thought I’d give it a try. Then I got to the drugstore, and found that the little tube had a huge price: $371! I didn’t want to shell out that much for a mere face cream, so I didn’t fill the prescription.

But my case was only skin-deep. What about people who can’t — or don’t want to — pay for prescription medications to treat chronic or serious illness? “It’s a real problem. Medications only work if people take them, and you can’t take them if you can’t afford them,” says Dr. Joshua Gagne, a pharmacist and epidemiologist with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

According to a National Center for Health Statistics survey, about 8% of adults in the United States don’t take prescribed medications because they can’t afford them.

Even if cost is not affecting your medication regimen, the following ideas may save you some money.

  1. Try generics. Generic drugs have the same active ingredients as brand-name medications, but generics are substantially less expensive. For example, the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor retails for about $390 for a 30-day supply. The generic version, atorvastatin, is about $10 for a 30-day supply. Always ask your doctor if a generic is available. “If a generic isn’t available, ask if there’s a similar drug with a generic version,” suggests Dr. Gagne.
  2. Go to a big-box store. Many pharmacies in grocery stores and big-box chains offer hundreds of generic medications for just $4 (for a 30-day supply) or $10 (for a 90-day supply). Ask for the list when you’re at the pharmacy or look it up on the Internet, and bring a copy to your doctor. Don’t be discouraged if your medication isn’t on the list; check a different store. “Different chains have different lists,” says Dr. Gagne.
  3. Get a bigger dose. Some prescription medications can be divided with a pill splitter. Ask your doctor if that’s the case with your medication, and if it’s possible to get a double dose. For example, you might get 10-milligram (mg) pills that can be split into 5-mg pills. Some medications cannot be split, such as capsules or tablets that are enteric-coated, or those that release medicine over time. “As a general rule, extended-release or slow-release medications should not be split,” says Dr. Gagne. These include drugs like metformin ER (Glucophage XR) for diabetes and pantoprazole (Protonix) for heartburn.
  4. Get a larger supply. Instead of getting a prescription that lasts for 30 days, and making an insurance copay each time, ask for a 90-day supply so you can make just one copay every three months. This works for medications you take long-term.
  5. Apply for assistance. There are many kinds of prescription assistance programs, offered by state and local governments, Medicare, nonprofit groups, and even drug makers. The programs typically have income requirements. Nonprofit organizations include: Needy Meds and Partnership for Prescription Assistance. Other resources include state assistance programs and Medicare Extra Help. Another option is to call the manufacturer of your medication directly. You can look up your medication on this Medicare website.
  6. If you’re on Medicare, consider updating your plan. Medicare plans can change from year to year, including the medications they cover, and the copays and deductible amounts. You have an opportunity to switch Medicare plans during the annual enrollment period from October 15 to December 7. Review the options using Medicare’s personalized plan search on its website.
  7. Shop around. Medication retail prices vary. Some pharmacies buy directly from drug makers; others use a middleman, which can drive up prices. Call pharmacies in your area to compare prices, or use a computer or smartphone app to do the work for you, such as WeRx or GoodRx. The attorney general’s office in your state may also have a website that provides similar information.

This last strategy is the one that worked for me. My dermatologist directed me to a pharmacy that sold the retinoid cream for less (because of a deal with the drug maker). It wasn’t free by any means, but the price was enough to get me to fill the prescription. Do I look younger yet? Not quite. But thanks to the discount, my wallet is looking a little better.

Related Information: A Plan for Successful Aging

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