5 Ways to Save on Prescription Drugs

Challenge your doctor to meet your financial limitations.

July 23, 2009

Apples are cheaper than pills: A healthy lifestyle can cut down on your medication costs.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—From backaches to high blood pressure to growing longer, thicker eyelashes, you can get a prescription for just about anything these days. But the price tag on all those pills can add up fast. Saving money on prescription drugs is possible, but it boils down to becoming a proactive patient, says Edward Jardini, MD, author of How to Save on Prescription Drugs: 20 Cost Saving Methods (Ten Speed Press, 2008). He suggests working with your doctor to limit medications, and shopping competitively to fill necessary prescriptions. “I think we’ve become very medication-intensive in the U.S., and often physicians and patients are thinking of what kind of pill can help this problem first,” says Dr. Jardini.

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Here are 5 tips on how to cut down on prescription drug bills.

# 1: Clue your doctor in to your budget.
Explaining financial concerns to your doctor can help him decide on the proper prescription for your health and your budget. “There’s nothing wrong with letting your doctor know you have financial constraints or concerns, and to ask for an economical treatment,” says Dr. Jardini. Doctors can often prescribe a more affordable brand name medication if asked. And they know that when patients aren’t able to handle prescriptions within their financial means, they’ll likely skip or decrease doses and miss out on medical benefits.

What you can do: Check your insurance plan. “Usually your prescription plan will have medications listed in various tiers depending on different co-payments,” says Dr. Jardini. He suggests bringing a copy of this form to the doctor, so if a new medication needs to be considered, it can be chosen from a lower co-payment tier. In some cases, you may even be better off paying out of pocket. “A lot of co-payments for the lowest tiers can be higher than the actual cost of the drug, so find out the retail price of the medication before you offer to pay with drug coverage,” Dr. Jardini says.

# 2: Don’t be swayed by free samples and ads.
Tune out flashy advertisements on television, and at the doctor’s office. Drug advertisements on TV all encourage consumers to ask their doctors about the medication directly instead of discussing solutions to the problem. Dr. Jardini suggests the first step is to turn down the free samples. “Sample medications are provided by the pharmaceutical companies and are always patented drugs. After accepting these and seeing the benefits, patients are eventually going to run out and have to buy the expensive treatment.”

What you can do: Ask about alternative medications. Have a conversation with your doctor about other medications that may be helpful. “Patients can politely decline the free samples and ask for a prescription for a trusted medication within their budget, specifically asking if there’s a generic brand that has done well for other patients,” Dr. Jardini says.

# 3: Think outside the pillbox.
Certainly there are times when medication is necessary, even lifesaving. But many symptoms can be resolved with lifestyle changes or with nonmedical treatments. Engage your doctor in conversation regarding alternative methods for overcoming your health problems or reducing your need for medicine, Dr. Jardini suggests.

What you can do: Ask for additional resources. Doctors may not have time within one appointment to delve into the details of, say, a diabetes-busting diet. But they should be able to put you on track to getting more information, whether it’s a publication, an advocacy group, or an appointment with a dietitian, nurse, therapist, or physician’s assistant to get more information. “If the topic comes up in a busy abbreviated visit, then the doctor can talk about resources like referring you to the dietitian,” says Dr. Jardini.

# 4: Challenge your medication.
Popping pill after pill without clear understanding of what each drug does? It may be time to reassess. “People find themselves on many medications, it’s getting to be scary how many pills people are on when they show up at a hospitals or doctor’s office,” says Dr. Jardini.

What you can do: Determine which medications to keep taking. Question your doctor regarding long-term medications you’re taking, and ask you can tell if they are still working for you. “It may take a couple of visits to determine what is really essential, and what has fulfilled its purpose and can now be stopped,” Dr. Jardini says.

# 5: Shop around.
After determining with your doctor what prescription drugs are necessary for you, shop around for the most competitive price. Even local stores can vary dramatically in pricing. “The price difference at one drugstore to another can be three to four times as much,” says Dr. Jardini. Check outside sources like nationwide mail-order or online retailers within the U.S. for big savings as well, he suggests.

What you can do: Shop safely. You can check prices at your local pharmacies with a few phone calls; your doctor or his staff may also have a sense of which pharmacies tend to be the most affordable. When checking online, look for signs that a site is legit. “No matter what online retailers you use, they should have a verifiable address, be fully accredited with a pharmacist on site, and have a number of seals of accreditations on their website,” Dr. Jardini says. In addition, he says never order from a pharmacy that doesn’t require proof of prescription, or you’re increasing the chances of never receiving the medication or getting a counterfeit product.