How to Avoid Paying $135 for a $12 Prescription
Drug prices vary wildly, so we arm you with bargain-hunting tools
After I recently experienced a mild allergic reaction to a bee sting, my doctor prescribed prednisone, a gentle steroid to help bring down the inflammation. At the RiteAid near my home, I paid $9.99 for six pills, to be taken over three days. It seemed like a reasonable price — until I got home, hit up Google, and realized the Walgreens nearby would have sold it to me for less than half the price.
If you’re not shopping around for your prescriptions, there’s a good chance you’re vastly overpaying. For cheaper drugs like prednisone, it’s not such an issue. But suppose you take the common antidepressant Sertraline, also known as Zoloft. According to a roundup of different pharmacy options in my zip code, a month’s supply might cost $12 at Costco. A nearby independent pharmacy with a delivery option, meanwhile, charges $135, more than 10 times as much for the same quantity.
Because most people don’t shop around, there are few market forces helping to keep drug prices in check. Meanwhile, a lack of transparency can actually cost people their lives. Millions of the uninsured and underinsured go without crucial medicines because of cost, and end up sicker for it. The national health crises of diabetes and high blood pressure are aggravated by medicine prices.
Studies in Florida and New York suggest that people living in low income neighborhoods may actually pay the most for their drugs, especially if they visit independent pharmacies. (Bigger chains often standardize their prices across a state or even country.) Even having great insurance won’t always prevent you from paying more than you should for prescription drugs.
I asked physicians to help me put together three very simple steps that should help you save money.
Do your homework
Don’t be surprised at the cash register. Online resources scour information from pharmacies near you to help you make informed choices. Some of these are state-run: You can find New York’s here: https://apps.health.ny.gov/pdpw/SearchDrugs/Home.action
Florida’s is here: http://www.myfloridarx.com/
Spend enough time looking at these lists, and a few trends emerge. Analysis from Consumer Reports suggests Costco is among the cheapest places in the U.S. to pick up prescriptions, with a sticker price (out of pocket) on average more than 80% lower than at CVS. There’s a little more hassle involved — it’s not open Sundays or around the clock — but the savings are worth the effort, and you don’t need to be a member. Online retailers such as HealthWarehouse.com can also save you money, especially for repeat prescriptions.
With independent pharmacies, it’s often a roll of the dice. The combined cost for five commonly prescribed drugs came in at anywhere between $69 and $1,351, according to one study, compared to $535 at Kmart. The most consistently expensive options were big pharmacy chains: For the same drugs that cost $105 at Costco, you’d pay more than $900 at CVS.
Ask your doctor for a generic
Brand-name drug marketing works all too well. Many Americans — and their doctors — are wary of generics. But there’s really no need to be. According to FDA regulations, non-brand name or generic alternatives contain precisely the same active ingredients in precisely the same amounts. The difference is often no more than the label, or the size and shape of the pill.
If your doctor has a close relationship with drug companies, the onus may be on you to initiate conversations about price comparisons. Ask if there’s a generic or non-brand name alternative that will be as effective and safe, but not quite so expensive. If you feel like your doctor may be resistant, try Googling your drug ahead of time so you know what to ask for.
If you’re being prescribed a newer brand name drug that may not yet have a generic, sometimes an older drug in the same class will work just as well. Ask your doctor if one exists, and if there’s a generic version that might come at a lower price.
Look beyond your insurance
To bring down your prescription price, physicians often recommend GoodRx, which aggregates pharmacy coupons and has its own in-house pharmacy-price comparison tool, available on its website.
Let’s say you need the common antibiotic azithromycin. GoodRx generates a “discount drug card,” which you present at checkout. Depending on the pharmacy you choose within your zip code, you might pay between $8 and $14 for a six-day supply, compared to the stated average price of $33.
While you can’t use GoodRx in addition to your insurance, it’s not unusual to find that drugs are actually cheaper with a coupon instead. (One caveat: By opting out of using your insurance to pay for your prescriptions, the cash you spend doesn’t count toward your deductible or your out-of-pocket maximum.)