Five ways to save money at the pharmacy

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Dr. Kenny Lin

With our nation still mired in a deep recession, many of us are having a tough time paying for prescription drugs — especially those for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

In fact, a Consumer Reports survey last year found that 28 percent of Americans have taken drastic steps to cut costs, like not filling their prescriptions, skipping dosages, and cutting pills in half without getting their doctor’s approval.

There are, however, far safer approaches for saving money on prescription medications. Try these strategies:

1. Don’t assume new drugs are superior. Prescription drugs aren’t like software and cell phones. Newer versions aren’t necessarily better and may occasionally be inferior to older and less expensive pills.

While prescription Clarinex for seasonal allergies is more expensive than over-the-counter Claritin, studies suggest it’s no more effective. And prescription Nexium can be a pricey way to treat acid reflux when most heartburn sufferers can get substantial relief from cheaper, generic omeprazole.

I also remember how excited doctors were about Vioxx for arthritis pain; we quickly switched patients away from ibuprofen, since Vioxx was thought to be easier on the stomach, but later regretted it when Vioxx was withdrawn from the market after being linked to heart attacks and strokes.

2. Avoid your doctor’s sample closet. Most family practices have a “sample closet” stocked with freebies of brand-name prescription drugs for common conditions from high blood pressure and diabetes to asthma and allergies. When I was in training, I often gave financially-strapped patients who were starting a new medication a month’s supply of samples instead of a prescription.

Although it seemed like a money-saving idea at the time, it wasn’t long before the samples ran out and my patients were left with the choice of paying for an expensive medication or switching to a less expensive drug they hadn’t tried before.

A 2006 study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found that practices that distributed free drug samples ultimately cost their patients an average of $7 more per prescription each month than practices that did not give out samples.

3. Go generic when possible. When your doctor suggests that you need a new medication, ask if it’s possible to prescribe a less costly or generic alternative that might be equally effective for your particular condition. Many pharmacies and discount chains offer a month’s supply of generic medications for $4 or a 90-day supply for $10.

If you’re taking more than one medication for a condition, like high blood pressure, you might be able to cut costs by getting a generic pill that combines the two medications.

4. Ask about drug discount plans. If you don’t have insurance coverage for prescription drugs, some pharmaceutical companies, as well as local and state government agencies, offer sizeable discounts on frequently prescribed medications for people who meet certain financial requirements. If you’re not eligible for Medicare, ask about the Together Rx Access program offered by drug companies. (See www.TogetherRxAccess.com.)

5. Buy in bulk. If you’ve been taking a medication for three months or more, consider buying several months’ supply in bulk via mail order. The website www.PharmacyChecker.com provides a useful tool for comparing drug prices among reputable online pharmacies.

Patients should check with their doctors before going this route, just in case their doctor is planning to make alterations in dosing or frequency.

© 2011 U.S. News and World Report