Reducing Medication Costs

Topic Overview

How can you lower your medicine costs?

Trying to make some changes in your lifestyle might help reduce your need for medicines. Many chronic illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and low back pain, require fewer medicines if you can increase your activity level, lose weight, and improve your diet. Also, counseling, support groups, and other therapies may help with illnesses such as depression.

How can you save money on prescriptions?

Generic medicines are less expensive copies of brand-name medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can take a generic equivalent for the brand-name medicine that you take now. Generic equivalents are made according to the same strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards as brand-name drugs. So generics have the same quality, strength, purity, and stability as their more expensive brand names.

Unfortunately, generic equivalents are not available for every brand-name medicine. If there is not an equivalent, ask your doctor if there is a similar medicine in the same class that may be less expensive or that has a generic equivalent. For example, Flomax, which is used to treat an enlarged prostate, is a relatively expensive medicine that does not have a generic equivalent. But another medicine that also is used for enlarged prostate, Hytrin, does have a less expensive generic equivalent.

Shop around for the best deal on medicines. The retail cost can vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy. Some pharmacies match the price that other pharmacies charge. While finding a good deal is important, be sure that your pharmacist (or pharmacists) knows your medical history, including all the drugs you take—both prescription and over-the-counter (nonprescription), as well as dietary supplements and herbs— even if you didn't get the drugs at that particular pharmacy. That way he or she can provide valuable advice about any potential for drug interactions, side effects, or other problems.

Also, compare costs of buying medicines online. Some large drugstore chains have Web sites that offer savings. See a complete list of Web sites on the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) site at www.nabp.net. Look for Web sites that display the NABP VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) seal, which means they meet state and federal requirements.

Pill splitting is another strategy that can help you save money without losing drug effectiveness or safety. Some tablets are available at double the dose and at the same or almost the same cost as lower doses. By splitting the larger dose, you can essentially get two doses for the price of one. But many medicines should not be split, including timed-release pills and capsules. The chart below lists 10 commonly prescribed medicines that researchers have determined can be split safely and effectively with significant cost savings.1

Medicines that can be split to save money
Medicine Most commonly prescribed for: Savings
Doxazosin (Cardura) Hypertension 46%
Citalopram (Celexa) Depression 46%
Clonazepam (Klonopin) Panic disorder, epilepsy 41%
Atorvastatin (Lipitor) High cholesterol 33%
Paroxetine (Paxil) Depression 46%
Pravastatin (Pravachol) High cholesterol 23%
Sildenafil (Viagra) Erectile dysfunction 50%
Lisinopril (Zestril) Heart failure, high blood pressure 38%
Sertraline (Zoloft) Depression 46%
Olanzapine (Zyprexa) Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder 31%

Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your prescription medicines are sold at higher dosages and if it's possible to split them. Talk to your pharmacist about how to split pills with an inexpensive, easy-to-use pill splitter.

Buying prescriptions in bulk can also save you money. Ask your doctor to write a prescription for several months' supply of medicines that you take consistently. Keep in mind that your insurance company may limit the amount of medicine you can get at one time. Sometimes the cash price for a 3-month supply of medicine is less costly than if you were to pay an insurance copay each month for three months. Mail-order services can often save you money on large orders. But be sure to use only trusted, reliable pharmacy Web sites.

If you are trying a medicine for the first time, don't get more than a 30-day supply. That way, if you have concerns about side effects, you can talk to your doctor about trying another medicine. And you may save money by not getting more than you needed.

For more ideas about how to pay for medicines, how to remember to take them, and when to call your doctor, see Quick Tips: Taking Medicines Wisely.

How can your insurance plan help you save money?

Take time to find out about how your medical insurance or managed health care plan covers medicine costs. Some insurance companies cover only generic medicines if they are available. With some insurance plans, you may have to pay more for medicines that are not on the plan's list of preferred medicines (also known as a formulary). Some insurers cover medicines that are bought only at participating pharmacies. Your insurance company also may not pay for certain medicines such as weight-loss and hair-growth drugs. Ask the customer service representative whether your medicines are covered, whether you need to buy at certain pharmacies, and about your copayment. Many insurance companies also list this information on their Web sites.

If you have a choice between plans, check what your copayment for prescription drugs will be, the maximum amount the plan will pay in a year, and other details. Choose the plan that best suits your needs. When you buy medicines, find out which payment option will be the least expensive. Some things to consider include whether there is a generic version of a preferred medicine and whether an over-the-counter equivalent costs less than your copayment. Bring a copy of your health care plan's list of preferred prescription drugs to your next doctor appointment. And keep the list with your chart. That way, you and your doctor can see which medicines cost the least on your plan. Remember, having the right information can save you time and money.

Are prescription medicines always necessary?

There may be an over-the-counter alternative for your prescription medicine. For example, nonprescription Aleve is a fraction of the cost of the prescription equivalent Naprosyn. (Generic versions of over-the-counter medicines can save you even more money.) Often nonprescription equivalents of prescription medicines come in lower strengths, so get instructions from your doctor or pharmacist on how to take them.

In the case of antibiotics, research has found that they are not always needed. For example, up to 80% of ear infections get better without antibiotics.2 Likewise, up to two-thirds of people with acute sinusitis improve on their own without antibiotic treatment.3 Your doctor might advise you to take a wait-and-see approach before you buy expensive antibiotics.

Can you save money by purchasing prescription medicines from Canada? Is it safe?

The answer to the first question is "Yes." Many brand-name prescription medicines, either over the Internet, by mail order, or in person, cost less from Canadian pharmacies than from their U.S. counterparts. Whether it is legal to buy them remains controversial.

The FDA warns that the safety of drugs bought from other countries cannot be ensured. But many doctors say that Canada also demands safety and efficacy for medicines. These doctors say they would rather have their patients buy medicines from Canada than skip doses because they can't afford their medicines. U.S. citizens have been buying medicines in Canada for years, although federal law prohibits the practice.

Talk to your doctor if you decide to import your medicines. And be sure to buy only from licensed Canadian pharmacies and wholesalers.

How can your doctor help?

To get your doctor to help, tell him or her that your prescription medicine bill is a financial burden. Ask for drugs that are less expensive but that work just as well. Often, several medicines can be used to treat the same condition, and your doctor may be able to prescribe one that costs less.

You might ask your doctor if he or she has medicine samples, vouchers, or other resources for you, especially when you are trying out a new medicine to see whether it will work.

What about the Medicare drug program?

The Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit began in January 2006. For the most current information about what the Medicare Part D Act means for you, go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE. Your doctor, pharmacist, or social worker may also be able to help you know about your Medicare benefits.

What other resources are available?

See whether the pharmaceutical company that makes your medicine has a patient assistance program. Some companies offer free or discounted drugs for people who cannot afford them. These companies often require that your doctor contact them first about your case. Your doctor will need to be involved, and the application process can be complex. You may need to provide documentation to verify your income. The Partnership for Prescription Assistance provides doctors and other health care providers with the information they need to access these programs. You can find out more at www.pparx.org.

Some states have programs for seniors and people with disabilities or low incomes.

If you have a rare disease, you may qualify for the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) medicine assistance program. This program helps people with rare diseases whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to pay for their prescribed medicines. For more information, visit www.rarediseases.org/programs/medication.

Most veterans know that the Veterans Administration offers prescription drug coverage for retired veterans. But many people don't know that the same service is available for their families and survivors. Call the VA Health Revenue Center toll-free at 1-877-222-VETS (8387), or go to www.va.gov/health.

Some organizations offer special discounts on prescription drugs for their members. For example, AARP and AAA offer savings. Many pharmacies offer some form of a discount plan for seniors. Community health clinics or programs may have low- or no-cost prescription drugs for those who qualify. Also, some pharmacies offer one low cash price ($4) for a 30-day supply of certain generic medicines.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

AARP (Association for the Advancement of Retired People)
601 E Street N.W.
Washington, DC  20049
Phone: 1-888-OUR-AARP
1-888-687-2277
Web Address: www.aarp.org
 

AARP is a national organization founded in 1973 to promote quality of life for older people. AARP provides information and education about issues affecting older people, including medication costs; advocates at the national, state, and local levels; and provides opportunities for service and involvement.


Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs
101 Truman Avenue
Yonkers, NY  10703
Web Address: www.consumerreports.org/health/best-buy-drugs/index.htm
 

This Web site has tips for how to talk to your doctor about prescription drugs. It also gives you reports on how well a drug works, how safe it is, and what it typically costs.


Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Consumer Health Information
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD  20993
Phone: 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332)
Web Address: www.fda.gov/consumer/default.htm
 

This Web site has health information for people of all ages. Topics include the following: medicines, food and nutrition, medical devices, cosmetics, and animal health. Spanish materials are also available.


National Council on Aging: BenefitsCheckup
1901 L Street NW, 4th Floor
Washington, DC  20036
Phone: (202) 479-1200
E-mail: comments@benefitscheckup.org
Web Address: http://benefitscheckup.org
 

BenefitsCheckUp is a service of the National Council on the Aging. It is a comprehensive online service that provides people aged 55 and over with confidential, personalized reports of public and private programs that can help save money on prescription drugs. It also provides a detailed description of the programs, local contacts for more information, and materials to help successfully apply for each program.


Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA)
950 F Street NW
Suite 300
Washington, DC  20004
Phone: 1-888-4PPA-NOW (1-888-477-2669)
Web Address: www.pparx.org
 

If you don't have prescription coverage, you can answer questions online or over the phone to see if you qualify for free or nearly free medicines. The PPA also has a Web site to find help with the cost of children's medicines. Go to http://kids.pparx.org.


References

Citations

  1. Stafford RS, Radley DC (2002). The potential of pill splitting to achieve cost savings. American Journal of Managed Care, 8(8): 706–712.
  2. Bradley-Stevenson C, et al. (2007). Otitis media in children (acute), search date January 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence. Also available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
  3. Ah-See, K (2008). Sinusitis (acute), search date August 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence. Also available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.

Other Works Consulted

  • Kass-Bartelmes BL, Bosco L (2002). Prescription Drug Therapies: Reducing Costs and Improving Outcomes. Research in Action Issue No. 8 (AHRQ Publication No. 02-0045). Rockville, MD: Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.
  • Kesselheim AS, Choudhry NK (2008). The international pharmaceutical market as a source of low-cost prescription drugs for U.S. patients. Annals of Internal Medicine, 148(8): 614–619.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2009). Coverage of personal importations. Regulatory Procedures Manual 2009, chap. 9. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/ora/compliance_ref/rpm/chapter9/ch9.html.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacist
Last Updated July 31, 2009

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