In an era of rising health care costs, we’re all wondering how to save on prescription drugs.
In this article, we’ll take a look at everything from simple strategies like knowing where to get free prescriptions and making use of generic drugs to more complex issues like gaining access to experimental medications for certain patients.
Here’s How to Save on Prescription Drugs
Health care and what to do about it — particularly the high cost of prescription drugs — is a perennial debate in our country.
But money expert Clark Howard has long said that you can’t control what Washington does about health care. All you can control is how you handle the expense of health care and prescriptions in your own life.
“Of all the economic output in the United States, 18 cents of every dollar goes to health care. That’s about 50% higher than any other developed country,” Clark says. “We are basically sapping our nation’s economic growth with the enormous amount of money [we’re spending].”
Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to learning how to save money on prescription drugs.
Table of contents
- Print Out the $4 Generics List
- Know Where to Get Free Prescriptions
- Use an App to Comparison Shop
- Get Mail-Order Drugs Through a PBM
- Shop at Costco — Even If You’re Not a Member
- Check Manufacturer Websites for Rebates
- Shop at a Canadian Pharmacy
- Split Pills to Save Even More
- Get Co-Pay Assistance for Life-Saving Medications
- Apply for ‘Expanded Access’ or ‘Compassionate Use’
1. Print Out the $4 Generics List
Generic drugs are now a $100+ billion market in the United States. By some estimates, that number could almost double to more than $190 billion in just five years.
Much of the growth is because employers make generics extra-affordable through mail-order programs (pharmacy benefits managers). Then you also have the grocery stores and big box retailers who do $4 generics.
Many popular retailers offer a 30-day supply of select generic drugs for $4 or a 90-day supply for $10. Some regional grocers even do free antibiotics! More on that in a bit.
But for now, here’s a look at some retailers offering $4 generics programs:
- H-E-B $4 generics
- HyVee $4 generics
- Sam’s Club $4 generics
- Target $4 generics
- Walmart $4 generics
- Winn-Dixie $4 generics
The next time you go to the doctor, print out one of these lists and see if there is a drug that would work for your condition. It can’t hurt to ask.
“Doctors have no idea what prescriptions cost. So a doctor will write a script based on what they think is the best thing for you,” Clark says. “But maybe you can find something just about as good that instead of costing $100 will cost you $4. That is a big difference!”
2. Know Where to Get Free Prescriptions
As we mentioned, some national retailers and a couple and even smaller regional players offer free antibiotics with a prescription.
This is a classic “loss leader” strategy to get customers in the door. The hope is shoppers will buy something while coming in for the free antibiotics! But you’re not required to buy anything else. So this can be a great way to save on prescription drugs for yourself and your family.
Here’s a look at who offers what:
- Meijer: Offers select antibiotics, prenatal vitamins, Metformin Immediate Release and Atorvastatin Calcium
- Publix: Offers seven free medications — Amoxicillin, Penicillin, Lisinopril, Metformin, Amlodipine, Ampicillin, SMZ-TMP
- Reasor’s: Free liquid antibiotics for children, including Amoxicillin and Penicillin (Oklahoma only)
- Sam’s Club: Offers five free medications — Donepezil, Escitalopram, Pioglitazone, Vitamin D and Finasteride — in all but a dozen states
- Winn-Dixie: Offers five free medications — Amoxicillin, Penicillin, Sulfameth/Trimeth, Lisinopril, Metformin
3. Use an App to Comparison Shop
Running a prescription through insurance isn’t always how you get the best price on it. And of course we all know that prescription costs can vary widely by retailer.
Both of these free services — which are available as mobile apps as well as on desktop — do the hard work of comparing prices for you. So they save you the time of making multiple calls or visits to nearby pharmacies to ask about pricing. Then they each offer coupons to lower the final cost of your prescription.
4. Get Mail-Order Drugs Through a PBM
Many employers who offer health insurance at work also partner with a pharmacy benefits manager (PBM). A PBM helps offer employees additional prescription savings, typically through a mail-order pharmacy program.
So, for example, you may be able to get a 30-90 day supply of a wide variety of medications through your PBM. Best of all, you’ll get it at a very inexpensive price and it will be shipped to your home!
If you’re not sure how your PBM works — or if you even have access to one on the job — talk with your company’s human resources department. They’ll know the answer and be able to point you in the right direction.
5. Shop at Costco — Even If You’re Not a Member
You probably know Costco Wholesale as the giant store that only lets members in to shop. But that’s not the case when it comes to prescriptions and a select few other things.
You don’t have to be a member to get a prescription filled at Costco. In fact, some of its warehouse clubs even feature a separate entrance for non-members that let them walk right into the pharmacy. Be sure to call your local store to check before heading out.
Costco is known to have some of the lowest prices on prescription medications. A recent report from The Florida Sun Sentinel found Costco handily beat the competition when it came to drug pricing.
Here are the price points the newspaper found when it called around to shop a Lexapro prescription:
- Costco – $6.99
- Sam’s Club – $83
- CVS – $114.99
- Walmart – $115.88
- Walgreens – $116.99
- Publix – $118
- Target – $147.99
- Winn-Dixie – $179.99
6. Check Manufacturer Websites for Rebates
Everybody loves coupons, right? Well, the pharmaceutical industry’s version of coupons are rebates. Manufacturers of brand-name drugs routinely offer rebates or other copay assistance to get their products into people’s hand for very low cost or sometimes even free.
For example, one member of Team Clark recently got an EpiPen alternative called an Auvi-Q for free — and saved hundreds of dollars in the process!
To see if there’s a rebate program for an expensive medication you take, either go to the medication’s website or just do a Google search for “[name of medication] + manufacturer’s rebate.”
7. Shop at a Canadian Pharmacy
For years, people who lived along the Canadian border have looked to our neighbor to the north for prescription savings. Canada has been a viable alternative for residents from Washington State to Maine. They simply go across the border and fill their prescriptions for a fraction of the cost for an identical medication.
If you don’t live in a border state, there are legitimate Canadian pharmacies online that you can use. PharmacyChecker.com has a list of vetted online Canadian pharmacies which it actively updates.
But in general, if you need help distinguishing a legitimate online pharmacy from a suspicious one, follow this advice:
- Avoid websites that don’t require you to have a prescription.
- Be very wary if they’ll sell you a prescription in exchange for completing an online questionnaire.
- Ridiculously low prices are a clue that something isn’t right.
- Ask if you can get in touch with a licensed pharmacist who works with the online seller. If you can’t, that’s a bad sign.
- Be sure that wherever you’re buying from lists a physical street address.
- Check that a seller is verified by the National Association of State Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).
- Look for sites ending in .pharmacy as evidence of NABP verification.
- Check for VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) certification, which indicates the seller has passed rigorous vetting by the NABP.
8. Split Pills to Save Even More
Here’s a lesser-known way to save on prescription drugs: Ask your doctor if you can get your medication in a higher dose and split the pill into halves.
This is a really easy way to save money. All you need is a pill splitter like this one pictured below. You can get this one or something similar to it at Walmart or elsewhere for $1 or less!
As you might imagine, some pills can routinely be split while others should never be split. As a general rule, capsules, coated pills and time-released drugs should be taken whole.
Consumer Reports says the following pills can pretty commonly be split. But remember — always check with your doctor first before splitting any pills!
- Amlodipine (Norvasc)
- Atenolol (Tenormin)
- Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
- Citalopram (Celexa)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Doxazosin (Cardura)
- Finasteride (Proscar)
- Levothyroxine (Synthroid)
- Lisinopril (Zestril)
- Lovastatin (Mevacor)
- Metformin (Glucophage)
- Metoprolol (Toprol)
- Nefazodone (Serzone)
- Olanzapine (Zyprexa)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Pravastatin (Pravachol)
- Quinapril (Accupril)
- Rosuvastatin (Crestor)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
- Sildenafil (Viagra)
- Simvastatin (Zocor)
One member of Team Clark writes that he saved more than $120 a year by splitting pills. Read about his account and see pictures here.
9. Get Co-Pay Assistance for Life-Saving Medications
What do you do if you have an illness that requires special medicine and you can’t afford it despite having insurance?
The Assistance Fund provides co-pay assistance that can make the difference between life and death for some patients. This non-profit helps pay for some medications by footing a significant amount of the out-of-pocket costs — including copayments, coinsurance, deductibles and other health-related expenses — for insured patients.
Best of all, The Assistance Fund tries to approve people for assistance within 24 hours because they know time is of the essence in many cases. You can see a list of diseases that are covered by The Assistance Fund here.
10. Apply for ‘Expanded Access’ or ‘Compassionate Use’
Sometime life-saving medications are out of reach not because of money, but because of a research and development timeline.
In some circumstances, the Food & Drug Administration has an Expanded Access (aka Compassionate Use) program that may help give people with serious or life-threatening conditions access to experimental medications.
In order to potentially qualify, all the following criteria must be met:
- Patient has a serious disease or condition, or whose life is immediately threatened by their disease or condition.
- There is no comparable or satisfactory alternative therapy to diagnose, monitor or treat the disease or condition.
- Patient enrollment in a clinical trial is not possible.
- Potential patient benefit justifies the potential risks of treatment.
- Providing the investigational medical product will not interfere with investigational trials that could support a medical product’s development or marketing approval for the treatment indication.
As you can see, there are a lot of answers to the question of “How do I save on prescription drugs?” The key is to find which ideas work for you and which don’t.
No matter how you slice it, the stakes are too high to not do anything.
“The cost of prescriptions is a terrible burden on people and is costing a lot of people their lives,” Clark says. “A third of all prescriptions written are abandoned before being filled because you just flat-out can’t afford that prescription.”
Don’t let this be you. Get the medicine you need at a price you afford by following our tips.