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April 18, 2012 at 9:27 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Prescription Drugs: 6 Money-Saving Doctor Tips

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Times are tough lately. Money is tight!

My patients are often left choosing between necessary medical care and other essentials. I consistently hear about the outrageous costs of pharmaceuticals. Indeed, branded prescription medications are expensive. With a little creativity, however, I have had success in minimizing drug costs for patients. 

This blog will provide some ideas for reducing the cost of prescription pharmaceuticals.

#1 Go Generic

Fortunately, those blockbuster drugs from a decade ago are now generic. Non-generic, or “branded” drugs are sold at a much greater cost.  Most of this cost differential is due purely to demand and the pharmaceutical companies’ ability to charge because of it. This power lasts as long as their patent for the drug (usually 10-12 years).

Of course, in all fairness, it takes a huge amount of money spent on research and development to bring a drug through the rigors of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A lot of money is also spent on marketing the drug. When the patent expires, other corporations may produce the drug and this competition lowers the cost drastically. For instance, when the cholesterol drug Pravachol was under patent, it was over $100 per month.  Now, the generic version can be purchased for as low as $10 per month.

But are the generics the same? Will the work as well?

It’s funny, 10 years ago, I couldn’t convince my patients to opt for the generic medications.  Mostly, they were suspicious of the quality. However, now that cost is more of the patient’s responsibility, those concerns seem to have diminished.

The truth is that in western countries, labs produce the same chemical drug as the branded drug company. While the shape and color may be different, it is the same drug. Occasionally, a patient will have a problem with the different dye or matrix that binds the drug,  but this can happen with the branded drugs dye as well and is quite rare.

The single exception to this rule seems to be with thyroid supplements. Though still uncommon, some patients require dosage adjustments when converting from branded to generic. That's only a minor problem, though. In short, yes, I recommend generic prescriptions as much as possible.

#2. Take Advantage of Incentives

Large-scale retailers (such as Target and Walmart) have some significant incentives in their pharmacies. Some offer certain antibiotics for free. Others offer an extensive list of generic drugs for $4 per month or $10 per 3 months whether a person has insurance coverage or not!

I rely on these incentives heavily when patients are interested.  I keep the lists in each patient room and use them to make my prescription choices.

Why are these incentives in place?

These retailers know that by saving you a few bucks on your prescription, you are more likely to shop in your store. As you wait the 15 or so minutes for your prescription to be filled, you are likely to fill up your cart with items from their store.

#3. Know Your Insurance Policy

If you have insurance that pays for your prescriptions, know how the game works.

Insurance companies strike deals with drug companies and put these drugs on their formulary. The formulary is a list of drugs covered by the insurance company. Most often this list comes in tiers with different patient cost for each tier. While it is difficult for doctors to know every formulary and every tier, smart prescribing of branded drugs on formulary can save patients money. All insurers make their formulary available to their customers and pharmacists can often help patients find out if similar drugs exist on lesser tiers.

#4. Take Advantage of Free Medication Programs

Every pharmaceutical company has programs for patients who fall below a certain income level. Often these income levels are surprisingly high. It never hurts to check! 

If you qualify, the company will ship your doctor the drug for free to dispense to you. I recommend that patients go online to the pharmaceutical company’s website. There is usually an obvious link to access the guidelines for these programs.

#5. Ask for Samples

Doctors often get samples of new pharmaceuticals. If your doctor stocks samples, it never hurts to ask!

#6. Look for the Best Deal

If you must pay for your medication, shop around. Online resources can ofter price comparisons easily. Sometimes it is best to make some phone calls. Remember - pharmacies are retail businesses. They buy the drugs wholesale and then mark them up.  The difference in drug costs from pharmacy to pharmacy can be quite alarming!

It is a fact that pharmaceuticals are cheaper in other countries. Companies in Canada can often save patients money and these are chemically the same drugs as in the U.S. If you're interested, U.S. citizens are required to send their prescription to these companies and they are converted to a Canadian prescription by a Canadian doctor. You will then be mailed the medication.

Aside from Canada, however, be cautious about buying internationally. It is estimated that only a fraction of the labeled drug is accurate in countries like Mexico or India. 

In Conclusion

Medication can be expensive. A few steps, however, can lead to huge cost savings.  Ask your doctor for a generic medication off a “$4 list” if possible. If a new drug is prescribed and the cost is high, ask for a sample. Make sure your doctor is aware of your insurance company’s formulary. Finally, shop around. While Canada may offer some legitimate cost savings, beware of what you find on the shelves of developing countries.

Photo Credit: Brooks Elliott

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