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Rising medicine prices are a pain for many, but experts have a prescription to help you keep the cap on your costs.
Almost half of U.S. residents take at least one prescription drug each month, up from 4 in 10 about 20 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For people ages 55 to 64, 1 in 5 takes five or more prescription drugs.
It’s no wonder the CDC estimates we spent more than $271 billion on prescribed medicines in 2013, the latest year for complete figures. That’s more than double the dollars spent in 2000.
Most of that was spent at retail drug stores, estimates the Kaiser Family Foundation. And that’s where consumers can start to save money, Consumer Reports says.
Those covered by insurance often don’t notice, but the price retailers charge can vary widely, even within the same ZIP code, CR said after secret shoppers surveyed more than 200 pharmacies nationwide. They checked prices for one-month supplies of five common generic drugs. The results:
- Actos (pioglitazone), for type 2 diabetes: Price ranged from $9 to $150.
- Cymbalta (duloxetine), an antidepressant also used to treat muscle and bone pain: From $11 to $220
- Lipitor (atorvastatin), for high cholesterol: $11 to $146
- Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner: $9 to $150
- Singulair (montelukast), for asthma: $15 to $144
CR also reported that to save money, many people split pills or skip medication doses, don’t bother filling prescriptions or forgo medical appointments and treatments altogether.
The CDC says nearly 1 in 10 did not take their medication as prescribed, 1 in 7 asked a doctor for a lower-cost medication, fewer than 2 in 100 bought prescription drugs from another country, and nearly 5 in 100 used alternative therapies.
But, if you want to save money on prescriptions, there are better strategies. Try these instead, says CR:
- Skip chain drugstores. For all five drugs CR priced, the big pharmacy chains consistently charged the most. Among all of the walk-in stores, Costco offered the lowest prices.
- Support independents. CR found some real bargains at local independent pharmacies, where pharmacists might have more flexibility to match or beat competitors’ prices. You have to be able to haggle. It also found wide fluctuations at supermarkets, another place you might not expect to save.
- Don’t always use your health insurance. Many chain and big-box stores offer hundreds of common generics at prices as low as $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply for people who pay out of pocket. Sam’s Club even fills some prescriptions for free for members. Check the fine print.
- Always ask, “Is this your lowest price?” A Costco spokesman told CR that its contracts for Medicare Part D plans prohibit pharmacists from offering a better cash price to a customer unless a customer asks. And Rite Aid told CR its pharmacists process prescriptions through insurance unless customers tell them to do otherwise. Asking can prompt the person on the phone to dig a bit for any available discount programs, cards and coupons.
- Seek a 90-day prescription. For drugs you take over the long term, it can be more convenient and even cheaper. For example, if you use insurance, you’ll pay one co-pay rather than three. And for discount generic drug programs, paying $10 for a 90-day supply works out to less than $4 every 30 days.
- Look online. If you’re paying out of pocket, check GoodRx.com to learn its fair price and use that to negotiate if a pharmacist quotes you a higher price. You can also fill a prescription with an online pharmacy, but be careful. The one CR shopped, HealthWarehouse.com, had the lowest prices overall. Just be careful about the one you choose. Only use an online retailer that clearly operates within the United States and displays the VIPPS symbol to show that it’s a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site.
For more ways to save, see this Money Talks News report here.
What’s your experience with prescription drug costs? Share with us in comments or on our Facebook page.