An alarming trend in the U.S. has seen millions of people having to weigh the costs of necessities like groceries and rent payments with their prescription drugs. While salaries have remained stagnant for years, medication prices just keep climbing. And people are having to make impossible decisions regarding their health and finances.
Why do prescription drugs cost so much?
From R&D (research and development) to name-brand marketing, administration, lack of price control, and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) that charge a fee for every prescription filled, there are many reasons why prescription medication costs keep rising higher and higher. However, it’s a uniquely American problem as we in the states pay the highest costs for prescriptions in the world.
I'm on a quest for cheap prescriptions. How can I save money?
It might take a little legwork, but you have options when it comes to saving on your medication. We gathered information vetted by medical and finance professionals to put together the ultimate consumer guide to prescription discounts.
Here are 20 tips to help you save money on medicine (without having to take a trip into Canada):
1. Get cheaper prescriptions by going generic.
You aren’t afraid of those store-brand potato chips or canned vegetables. To save money on prescriptions, try applying the same idea to your medicine.
The FDA requires that generic drugs have the same working ingredients, strength, testing standards, use and effects, ingestion method, and ability to reach the required level in the bloodstream at the same time and to the same extent as their name-brand counterparts.
So why are generic brands so much cheaper? Because generic drug manufacturers don’t have to repeat the studies that the brand-name medicines have already completed. Also, more competition between generic-brand companies helps keep the prices lower for consumers.
You may notice some differences between a generic drug option and your name-brand prescription, like flavor, but the amount of money you’ll save might be enough to make it wash down easier.
2. Search for prescription drug coupons online.
Ah, Google, the coupon book of the 21st century. Unleash your inner coupon clipper and get to searching. You might find discounts, specials, or rebates on your normal medicine. While the discount won’t be deducted from your copay, it will lower your purchase price. Just be sure to let your pharmacist know about your coupon before they present you with the final cost after insurance.
3. Shop around and compare pharmacy prices.
If you’re paying the full cash price for your medicine with no copay, it can pay to comparison shop. Prices may vary between pharmacies due to location and volume of prescriptions, so hit the pavement to start seeing what’s out there.
4. Use a prescription-saving app.
Don't feel like spending precious hours Googling or driving from drug store to drug store? Try comparing prices and finding coupons through an app on your mobile phone. There are several available for download, including:
RetailMeNot Rx Saver
Easy Drug Card
Taking a few minutes to check your app before choosing a prescription can lead to serious pharmacy savings.
5. See if your financial institution offers a prescription discount card.
Some community financial institutions, especially credit unions, are part of Rx savings networks. Through these networks, account holders can receive a free prescription saving card. Ask your financial institution if they offer Rx or drug discount cards or do an online search for institutions in your area that may offer them.
6. Join your pharmacy’s prescription savings program.
Some pharmacies offer in-store prescription discount programs, known as prescription clubs. These are often for people with no insurance or not enough coverage. While not the same as health insurance, these clubs can offer up to 85% savings on thousands of prescriptions — for everything from diabetes drugs to mental health medicine.
Check with pharmacies in your area to find more information about prescription clubs, including eligibility requirements. If you can't find any, remember that retailers like Walgreens and Kmart do offer prescription clubs.
7. Shop local or a preferred pharmacy
For big pharmacy discounts, try going to your local, independent pharmacy. They often offer prices that beat out major chains, supermarkets, and big box stores.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a preferred pharmacy network is a group of chain pharmacies that likely give insurance plans a larger discount than other pharmacies. Be sure to check if your prescription insurance plan has a preferred pharmacy network and if that pricing beats out your independently run drugstore.
8. Try a verified internet pharmacy.
Verified internet pharmacies, or Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS), have passed strict reviews by the National Association of Boards Pharmacy (NABP) and often offer significantly cheaper prices.
While VIPPS are a safe option, be careful not to fall victim to a fraudulent pharmacy site. If you find a site you’d like to use it, check it at Find a Safe Site before making any purchases.
9. Get your medications shipped.
Mail order pharmacies can save you money by cutting out the brick-and-mortar pharmacy and shipping in bulk. Order 90 days’ worth of your medicine to enjoy lower costs — and save even more if you take multiple medications. Just remember that shipping takes time and plan the timing of your order accordingly.
10. Use online women's health organizations.
Sites like Planned Parenthood Direct, Nurx, Prjkt Ruby, and Maven Clinic offer free or low-cost birth control to women in many states. They also offer telehealth services, virtual clinics, and prescription drug deliveries — even if you don’t have insurance.
11. Openly ask your doctor questions.
Your doctor can be more of an ally than you think. Developing an honest relationship with your physician can lead to big savings on your prescriptions. Here are some questions you can ask during your next visit:
Do you have any free samples?
Is it possible for me to split my pills?
Can I get a 90-day supply?
Will you help me ask my insurance company for an exception to include my prescription?
Is there a different drug you can prescribe me that is cheaper?
And remember: be persistent. Being your own advocate by telling your doctor exactly what you need will help you in the long run.
12. Look into patient assistance programs.
Patient assistance programs, or PAPs, are offered by some pharmaceutical companies to help patients who don’t have health insurance or prescription drug coverage. Through these programs, you could have access to free or low-cost prescription drugs.
To enroll, you will need to apply on the drug company’s website with your financial information and information about your prescriptions from your doctor. Visit RxAssist.org to find drug companies that offer PAPs to get started.
13. Know your benefits under Medicare Part D.
If you are 65 years or older, you may have access to Rx savings through Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage. This optional program helps Medicare beneficiaries with their prescription drug costs.
14. Ask chain stores for free prescriptions.
Some supermarket chains offer basic antibiotic prescriptions like amoxicillin for free, as well as prenatal vitamins, metformin, and children’s vitamins. Chain pharmacies that offer this include:
So the next time you’re at one of these stores, be sure to show your prescription and ask if it's free!
15. Research your prescription insurance plan.
Not all copays are created equal. Get to know the copays on your insurance plan. Many have copay tiers for prescription drugs: $10-$25 copays for generic (first tier) drugs or preferred (second tier) drugs and $35-$100 copays for brand name, non-preferred (third tier) drugs.
Make sure the medications your doctor is prescribing you fall under a copay tier that you’re willing to pay.
16. Get comfortable with your pharmacist.
Just like your physician, your pharmacist can be an ally in your quest for cheaper prescriptions. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about what your needs are regarding medication costs.
Sticking with the same pharmacist can also help you maintain consistency with your medications, as they will check for drug interactions, side effects, and allergies to help you take your medicine as safely as possible.
17. Reach out to charity networks.
For people at lower income levels who are having difficulty affording their medications, the Patient Access Network Foundation (PAN) can provide monetary grants to cover prescription costs. Visit their site to apply online.
Organizations such as the Elks or Lions clubs may also offer charity assistance at the local level for people who need help with prescription costs.
18. Use an HSA or FSA to pay for prescriptions.
While using an HSA or FSA won’t lead to a lower prescription cost at the cash register, the money you contribute to these accounts is tax-free and reduces your overall tax bill — so you’ll be saving over time.
19. Never stretch (or stop taking) your medicine.
When financial times are tough, it can be tempting to wait a little longer between prescription fills. While that might save you money in the short term, the risks to your health are much too dangerous — and could be costlier in the long term. Always consult with your doctor before making decisions to stop or suspend your medication.
What if I need health insurance? Can my financial institution help?
Many community financial institutions offer services outside of checking, savings accounts, and loans. It’s possible your financial institution offers health insurance through a third party. Check with yours or look online to see if any local financial institutions in your area offer an affordable health insurance option.
Your prescription medications don’t have to drag you into debt, but it will take some work to find the cheapest options and create a network of allies to help you. Reach out, speak up, and keep searching until you find a prescription plan that works for your budget.
Bruce, D. F. (2019, April 8). A Consumer’s Guide to Drug Discounts. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living/consumers-guide-drug-discounts/
Anderson, L. A. (2019, July 9). Top 10 Ways to Save Money on Your Medication Costs. Drugs.com. https://www.drugs.com/slideshow/save-money-medication-costs-1027
Glover, L. (2016, June 22). Cheap Prescriptions: How to Save at the Pharmacy. Nerdwallet. https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/health/save-money-prescriptions/