Once upon a time, it was pretty easy to buy a prescription: go to the drugstore. Give the pharmacist your insurance card. Pay a very low copay, or none at all.
But all that has changed. Is that medication covered? Is there a generic? Is it on your formulary? Have you met your deductible? Oh, gosh, your copay is so high!
Here are seven easy things you can know or do to make sure you get the best price on prescriptions.
1. Your medications could easily be cheaper if you pay cash, without insurance. That’s right: cheaper without insurance. So always ask: How much will that cost? How much will that cost me? There are a number of reasons for this, including the rise of cheaper generic medications, and the fact that pharmacies can set whatever price they want. Also, you may find yourself in this situation: a common prescription, not on the formulary at your insurance plan, can be had with, say, a $70 co-pay — while you can buy it for cash for $35. Always ask.
2. Don’t assume that generics are always cheaper. Many of us thought that when a high-priced drug became a generic, the price automatically dropped. Not true: manufacturers and middlemen can charge what they want, meaning the prices can vary – a lot. Also, the same pharmacy can have prices that change from month-to-month. If you’re suddenly asked to pay $50, when last month you paid $10, ask why. You might want to go elsewhere.
3. Don’t assume that drug coupons or coupon cards will mean your meds will be cheaper. This goes for manufacturer’s coupons, pharmacy coupon cards and “membership cards” from places like county government, or various other online and offline sources. Stop and think about it for a second: the membership card has costs somewhere (marketing? staff? commissions?) that must be borne by someone. Also, is the card’s information used to generate data about you that will be sold to someone? I had a personal experience with a prescription from a chain that wanted me to use their club card, but I declined the card and got the discount anyway.
4. There are a lot of online pharmacies that are not legit. You might find a similar deal, or a better deal, offline. If you want to check out an online pharmacy, here are a few resources: The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has a certification program called Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS). Because I thought it possible that the NABP exists to protect members, I looked a little further, and found two other accrediting entities: pharmacychecker.com and legitscript.com. They seem to have been in a long competitive fight over legitimacy and business practices, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth, and they approve and disapprove different pharmacies.
5. Use online search tools, but always confirm you’re actually getting the price that’s listed. Again, there can be a lot of variation from month-to-month in some drug prices. Also, some online sources will promise that their coupon works everywhere — then when you get to the pharmacy, they don’t accept the coupon.
One of the best search tools we’ve seen is on the Costco site. Costco has a reputation for having extremely low pharmacy prices: their widely reported pricing policy is to limit markups to 14 percent. You don’t need to have a Costco membership card to use their pharmacies, either.
But don’t assume Costco is the least expensive — local independent pharmacies and other big-box stores can be competitive. In fact, some chains give away common medications like antibiotics — either as loss leaders, or in exchange for information about you, or simply for good will.
Another search tool, goodrx.com, is a local comparison-shopping tool for prescription drugs. It supplies a list of places that sell the drug and the prices. Often a coupon is involved, which you have to print out, and that means money’s changing hands somewhere. The prices aren’t the lowest we’ve seen, but it gives you an idea of how to shop around. We’ve also heard anecdotally that the coupons are not always accepted. And they never list Costco on their site — but they do list, in my neighborhood, a mysterious “Membership Warehouse Pharmacy” that I suspect is Costco. Try searching a common med in your neighborhood and see if Costco comes up!
Similar sites – werx.org and coupondoc.com also help you get the best price on prescriptions. Again, the caveat applies about coupons.
6. Check that you need to pay for that prescription at all. Sometimes there are over-the-counter equivalents, or something very similar—especially for things like prenatal vitamins, allergy medications and some treatments for heartburn.
7. If you have big prescription costs, or if you’re very organized, you can save big bucks. Take a look at this article from a woman who is extremely smart about all this. She has advice not only about shopping for the drugs she and her family use, but also medications for pets. She has a binder with printed lists, and every time she goes to the doctor, she has a conversation about medications. It’s a great example.
You might also be interested in NeedyMeds.com, which gives information about patient assistance programs, which can help people pay for expensive medications, either through the drug companies or through foundations working with drug companies.
Another good source of information: Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs.
So, what’s the takeaway? You can spend (and save) a lot of money on prescriptions.
Ask. Always. What will that cost? What will that cost me?
Jeanne Pinder is the founder and CEO of clearhealthcosts.com bringing transparency to the health-care marketplace by telling people what stuff costs. A former New York Times editor and reporter, she loves finding things out and telling people what she’s learned.