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.
Follow these tips and you’ll be well on your way to saving money on prescription drugs.
Save 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, and that figure is expected to continue to rise.
Much of the growth is because employers are making generics extra-affordable through mail-order programs (pharmacy benefits managers). Then you also have the grocery stores and big-box retailers that offer $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 offer certain antibiotics at no charge. More on that in a bit.
But for now, here’s a look at some retailers with $4 generics programs:
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 prescription 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
Some national retailers and a couple of 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 that shoppers will buy something when they come in to get 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 and prenatal vitamins.
- Publix: Offers some antibiotics and medicines for chronic conditions.
- Reasor’s: Provides free liquid antibiotics for children, including Amoxicillin and Penicillin (Oklahoma only).
- Sam’s Club: Offers several medications for free to Sam’s Plus members (not available in all states).
- Winn-Dixie: Offers five free medications: Amoxicillin, Lisinopril, Metformin, Penicillin, Sulfameth/Trimeth.
3. Use an App to Comparison Shop
Running a prescription through insurance isn’t always how you get the best price on it. And prescription costs can vary widely by retailer.
Fortunately, there are several leading apps and websites to help you find the least expensive price on your prescription at pharmacies near you:
All of these free services — which are available as mobile apps as well as on your desktop — do the hard work of comparing prices for you. So they save you the time you’d spend making phone calls or visits to pharmacies to ask about pricing. They also offer coupons to lower the final cost of your prescription.
We put these five popular apps to the test, and there was definitely a clear winner on price! See the results here.
4. Get Mail-Order Drugs Through a PBM
Many employers that offer health insurance also partner with a pharmacy benefits manager (PBM). A PBM helps offer employees additional prescription savings, typically through a mail-order program.
For example, you may be able to get a 30- or 90-day supply of a wide variety of medications through your PBM. Best of all, you’ll usually get it at a very inexpensive price and it will be shipped to your home.
If you’re not sure whether your company offers a PBM, just ask someone in the Human Resources department.
5. Shop at Costco — Even If You’re Not a Member
You probably know Costco Wholesale as the giant store that only lets members shop there. But that’s not the case when it comes to prescriptions and a 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 lets 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 best prices on prescription medications. Recent research from Consumer Reports confirms this.
However, the magazine notes that even Costco’s low prices can sometimes be bested by select independent pharmacies and grocery stores if you ask for the “cash” or retail price.
But as a general rule, the research shows that Costco is a good place to start when you’re looking to save on prescription drugs.
6. Check Manufacturer Websites for Rebates
Everybody loves coupons, right? Well, rebates are the pharmaceutical industry’s version of coupons. Manufacturers of brand-name drugs routinely offer rebates — or other co-pay assistance — to get their products into people’s hands.
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 a 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 headed north for prescription savings. By just crossing the border, they’re able to fill many of their prescriptions for a fraction of the U.S. cost.
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 that it actively updates.
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 wary if the site requires you to complete a questionnaire to get your prescription for free.
- 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 the website lists a physical street address for the pharmacy.
- Verify the seller through 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 pills in half.
This is a really easy way to save money. All you need is a pill splitter like the 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.
One member of Team Clark writes that he saved more than $120 a year by splitting pills. Read about his account here.
But the bottom line is this: Be sure to consult your doctor before splitting any pills. He or she will tell you if it’s a viable money-saving option for you.
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 nonprofit organization 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. You can see a list of conditions that are covered by The Assistance Fund here.
10. Apply for ‘Expanded Access’ or ‘Compassionate Use’
Sometimes 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.
Here are the preliminary criteria for the program:
- The 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.
- The potential benefit to the patient 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 can afford by following our tips.