By , Elizabeth Renter
Published October 27, 2015
When your monthly prescription costs are too much to handle, the pharmacist usually will first recommend buying generic drugs. But when generics are similarly costly, this advice can be for naught. Recent, rapid increases in the prices of generics can put your medicine out of reach— potentially jeopardizing your health— but employing other cost-saving strategies may help.
Opting for a generic drug over a brand-name version has historically been the best way to cut prescription costs, which may explain why these drugs account for 86 percent of prescriptions filled in the U.S. But in the last several years, patients have had to spend more on generic — sometimes hundreds or even thousands of dollars more — making it difficult to follow doctors’ orders.
Data from the Healthcare Supply Chain Association suggest generic costs are rising exponentially. In its analysis of 10 generic drugs, the average price increased by 1,893.6 percent from October 2013 to April 2014. The cost of the generic asthma drug albuterol sulfate, for instance, climbed 4,014 percent in those six months, rising from $11 to $434 for a bottle of 100 tablets. The phenomenon is so widespread that the federal government recently announced an investigation into rising generic prices.
The elderly, uninsured and those in high-deductible health plans are most likely to feel the pinch. If you find yourself with sticker shock when filling your prescriptions, these strategies can soften the blow.
Here are 7 ways to save when generics area too expensive:
1. Check prices.
Prices differ from drug to drug and from brand name to generic. They also vary from pharmacy to pharmacy. Call around to find out how much local drugstores are charging for both the brand-name and generic versions of your medication. Also, don’t write off all online pharmacies — some are legitimate outlets for cheaper medications. If you’re buying online, look for sources that have been certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
2. Ask your doctor about therapeutic alternatives.
A brand name and its generic counterpart often aren’t your only options. Talk with your doctor about other drugs that may serve the same purpose while costing much less.
“Each medication belongs to a certain category. So, for example, not just ‘hypertension’, but ‘hypertension, ACE inhibitors,’” explains Dr. Kevin O’Brien, chief medical officer for the prescription savings site RxREVU.
Each category can include several different drugs. These “therapeutic alternatives” have the same purpose and even similar formulas. O’Brien says some people are taking the more expensive drugs in a category simply because their doctors prefer them, when opting for a therapeutic alternative could save them up to 80 percent.
3. Request samples.
Drug companies unload an estimated $16 billion worth of drug samples on doctors each year. These are most often brand-name pharmaceuticals, and free brand-name drugs are cheaper than any generic. Keep in mind that these samples can’t last forever, so they are only a temporary solution.
4. Look for drug coupons and copay cards.
Drug makers, particularly those behind brand-name drugs, often offer discount programs, which will be listed on the drug’s website.
“If you are paying retail, you should definitely sign up for these discount cards, subsidized by the drug companies, because they don’t expect that anyone would actually pay the high retail cost of brand-name drugs,” O’Brien says.
5. Contact the drug maker.
In addition to coupons and discount cards, drug makers often have patient assistance programs, designed to help cash-strapped consumers get their drugs for free or at a steeply discounted rate. Visit the pharmaceutical company’s website, ask your doctor for details, or use an online service like the Partnership for Prescription Assistance to locate these programs.
6. Split pills.
“Often a higher dose of your medicine would cost the same as your lower dose,” explains O’Brien, who says the practice of pill-splitting has been around for more than 100 years. “If you are on a 20 mg pill, and there is a 40 mg pill available, have your doctor prescribe the 40 mg pill and then use a pill splitter to cut it in half.”
A one-month supply will then last twice as long, potentially cutting your costs by 50 percent.
7. Purchase several months’ worth in one fill.
Using the same rationale as pill splitting, purchasing a larger supply of medication can save you money. O’Brien says some pharmacies have programs that allow customers to purchase 90-day supplies at discounted rates.
Don’t skimp on your medicine.
When faced with pricey medications, it can be tempting to stretch your supply or skip doses. Don’t. Explore all of the money-saving options available, even when it requires a bit more footwork. Your health could depend on it.