Some ways to cut pharmaceutical bill

January 21, 2007|By Gregory Karp | Gregory Karp,Morning Call

It's no secret that prescription drugs can be very expensive. But you're not necessarily stuck paying the high prices.

That's important to know, given that more people are paying for large parts of their medical insurance nowadays. But even people with prescription drug coverage can lower their spending on co-payments for medications.

The cost savings can be dramatic.

One recent study showed that instead of paying about $140 for 100 doses of cardiovascular drug Tenormin, you could instead pay $5.65. Instead of paying near $500 for 100 doses of heartburn drug Nexium, you could pay about $62.

Those examples, achieved through a variety of techniques outlined below, were included in a November study, "Shopping For Drugs: 2007," by health economist Devon Herrick of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The report is light on policy and politics, and heavy on examining practical ways consumers can cut their drug spending.

Americans spent $230 billion on prescription drugs in 2005, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Below are several ways to spend less money on yours. Of course, your doctor should approve using these strategies:


Ask your doctor if a less expensive medication would work. A generic, a copy of a name-brand drug, can cost 20 percent to 80 percent less. On average, the cost of a brand-name prescription in 2005 was about $100, while generics cost about $30, according to the association. Generics are only available for drugs whose patents have expired.

For example, consider that last year the patent expired on the cholesterol-lowering medication Zocor. Patients taking Zocor and the more popular Lipitor now have generic options and could save as much as 70 percent.

Another possible substitute for high-priced drugs is an over-the-counter medication approved by your doctor. For those with insurance, you might find an over-the-counter substitute costs less than your prescription co-pay. And co-pays for generics often are less than a co-pay for a brand-name drug.

For more information on making cost-effective drug choices, go online to www.crbestbuydrugs .org, for a Consumers Union report.

Compare prices.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. rocked the retail pharmaceutical world in September when it announced that it would sell a month's worth of certain generic prescription drugs for $4. Its program includes 331 drugs, including 14 of the top 20 most-prescribed medications.

Other retailers have matched Wal-Mart's program, or at least lowered their prices. Costs can vary widely among pharmacies, so it pays to compare among both online and brick-and-mortar retailers, especially if you take the medication regularly.

Price comparisons and information are available at such Web sites as, and

"It's getting more competitive and that's obviously a very good sign," Herrick said. "People are beginning to see they have a choice."

Be wary of samples.

Free drug samples from your doctor are a great bargain - that is, until the freebies run out. That's when you fill the prescription and find those free pills can become extremely expensive. Some clinics and hospitals have banned the use of samples, claiming it's cheaper for patients in the long run to use generics.

Buy in bulk.

Most health plans through employers offer a mail-order option, where you can buy drugs in bigger quantities. A three-month supply by mail order can cost nearly the same as a one- or two-month supply at a retail drugstore, the study said. The savings on generics is even greater.

If you'll be taking the pills for a long time, convert the prices on different quantities to a price-per-pill figure for the best deal. Even those with insurance will dole out fewer co-pays.

Split pills.

You can buy many medications at double strength and split the pill in half. Often the price is the same regardless of dosage. So you could pay half-price for the drugs or shell out half as much in insurance co-pays.

Pill-splitting is most precise when using a plastic pill-splitting tool, also called a tablet cutter, which you can buy at a drugstore for about $5. Be aware that some pills cannot be split, including time-release drugs and capsules. And the patient must be able, physically and mentally, to split pills and be dedicated to doing it.

Beware the Canada option.

Buying brand-name drugs from Canada can be cheaper, sometimes much cheaper, but it's technically illegal. Consumer Reports recommends that if you are determined to buy a name-brand drug from Canada, go to for a list of approved outlets and look for the seal of approval by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association. Generic drugs are more likely to be cheaper in the United States.

Seek help.

Those without insurance or with low incomes may qualify for a variety of programs that help pay for prescription drugs. Among them, according to Consumer Reports Money Adviser, are Partnership for Prescription Assistance (; Rx Outreach (www.rxoutreach .com); TogetherRxAccess (; along with federal, state and local government programs.

Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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