10 Expert Tips for Slashing Prescription Drug Costs

These lesser-known tricks can cut your medication expenses by 15 to 95 percent -- and possibly reduce some to $0.

10 Expert Tips for Slashing Prescription Drug Costs Photo by Det-anan / Shutterstock.com

If there were karate belts for saving money on medication, I’d have a black belt.

I started my training early in life, having been raised by health care workers.

I’ve also spent years on both sides of the medical fence, as a patient and as a health care worker. I’ve had to pay for medical expenses while insured and while uninsured. And now here I am in personal finance.

Along the way, I’ve learned and used about every trick in the book for reducing prescription drug expenses. The following 10 are among the best:

1. Get medication for free

Some grocery store chains offer free prescription drug programs. Through these programs, you can get certain commonly used generic drugs for $0.

They include some antibiotics and diabetes medications, for example.

For more details, check out “8 Grocery Store Chains That Offer Free Prescription Drugs.”

2. Pay with a discounted gift card

This is my favorite way to shave money off my prescription drug copays.

I primarily get my household’s medications at CVS these days, as it’s our nearest pharmacy. So, I buy CVS gift cards for less than their face value and pay for medications with those cards.

I buy the cards from marketplaces like Cardpool.com and Raise.com. These websites enable folks with unwanted gift cards to sell them to others, albeit for less than they are worth. That enables savvy shoppers to nab gift cards for less than their face value.

A comparison website called Gift Card Granny will tell you which marketplace is selling a certain retailer’s gift cards for the lowest price at any given time. So, always visit Gift Card Granny before buying a discounted gift card.

I get CVS gift cards for about 15 percent off. So, when I pay for medications with one, I basically get the medications for 15 percent off.

3. Pay with a rewards credit card

Can’t pay with a discounted gift card? If you have a rewards credit card, use it.

Some folks like cards with travel perks such as airline miles. I’m all about my cash-back credit card. Using it scored me roughly $400 in free cold, hard cash last year. I stash the cash back in a high-yield savings account so it can increase in value until I need it.

Anyway, if you don’t have a credit card that you love — or a savings account with a competitive interest rate, for that matter — check out the Money Talks News Solutions Center. It has free tools to help you comparison shop for various financial products.

4. Pay out of pocket

If your copay is more than $4, you might be overpaying.

Many pharmacies, including those at big-box stores and supermarkets, offer a 30-day supply of various generic medications for as little as $4, and a 90-day supply for $10.

I currently have health insurance but pay out of pocket for two medications for this reason. If I bought those drugs through my insurance, I’d pay a $10 copay for a 30-day supply. But when I buy them out of pocket at such pharmacies, I can get a 90-day supply for $10.

So, on those two medications, I save a total of $160 per year by paying out of pocket.

5. Shop around

Services like GoodRx and Blink Health make it easy to compare the price of a drug at different pharmacies.

They offer potential savings — of up to 95 percent — for the uninsured as well as the insured. The latter includes folks on Medicare and high-deductible plans.

We recently broke down how GoodRx and Blink Health work in “2 Free Websites and Apps That Can Slash Your Prescription Drug Costs.”

6. Check warehouse clubs

You generally do not need to be a member of a chain like Costco or Sam’s Club to use their pharmacies. They don’t charge nonmember surcharges on prescriptions, either.

So, if you find that one of their pharmacies has the best price for a medication you need, don’t write off the option just because you don’t have a membership.

7. Compare strength prices

Sometimes, the per-milligram cost of a medicine varies depending on the pill strength.

For example, at the time this article was written, HealthWarehouse.com was selling a 30-day supply of the cholesterol drug Crestor for $282 — whether you were buying the 10-milligram pill, the 20-milligram pill or the 40-milligram pill.

So, the per-milligram costs for 30 pills would be as follows:

  • 10-milligram pill: 94 cents per milligram
  • 20-milligram pill: 47 cents per milligram
  • 40-milligram pill: 23.5 cents per milligram

If you take 20 milligrams a day of Crestor, you would save 50 percent — $141 per month — by buying 40-milligram pills and splitting them. The same is true if you take 10 milligrams a day but buy and split 20-milligram pills.

If you find you could save significantly by splitting pills, ask your doctor whether your prescriptions can be split safely. If the doctor says yes, then ask him or her to write your prescription such that the pills can be split. Explain how it would save you money.

8. Try generics

Generics are one of the best ways to save money on medications.

Plus, there’s virtually no reason not to at least try a generic drug these days. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website’s [email protected] database makes it pretty easy to determine whether a generic is equivalent to the brand-name version.

Generic drugs must meet numerous criteria to be classified by the FDA as what the agency calls “therapeutically equivalent.” For example, the FDA says such drugs:

  • Are approved as safe and effective.
  • Contain the same active ingredient, in identical amounts, as the brand-name version of the medication.
  • Meet other standards for strength, quality and purity.

You can tell whether a generic medication in the [email protected] database has met all of these criteria by looking at its therapeutic equivalence code, or “TE code.” According to the FDA, generics that have a code starting with the letter:

  • “A” are considered therapeutically equivalent
  • “B” are not considered therapeutically equivalent

Just note that to look up a generic in the [email protected] database, you generally need to know what company manufactured it. You might find the manufacturer listed on your prescription bottle. If not, you will need to ask your pharmacy.

9. Consider over-the-counter options

Few types of prescription medications have over-the-counter competitors. Antihistamines, for example, are among the few.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask your doctor or pharmacist if your prescriptions have OTC equivalents. You might save yourself some money and future trips to the doctor.

10. Save your receipts

The federal income tax deduction for eligible medical expenses is one of few deductions that wasn’t killed off by the recent tax code overhaul.

Prescription drug expenses are usually considered eligible medical expenses, according to the Internal Revenue Service. So, if you might qualify for the deduction for medical expenses, save your receipts for prescriptions.

The tax code overhaul temporarily lowered the threshold for this deduction. Folks who are eligible for it can write off medical expenses that exceed:

  • 7.5 percent of their taxable income for tax years 2017 and 2018
  • 10 percent of their taxable income for tax years 2019 and thereafter

What’s your favorite way to save money on prescriptions? Let us know below or on Facebook.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Karla Bowsher
Karla Bowsher
I’m a freelance journalist and former newspaper reporter who has covered both personal and public finance. I've worked for a top 50 major metro daily and a community newspaper as well as ... More

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