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Life Hacks for Thrifty Fifties: Saving on Prescription Drugs

Life Hacks for Thrifty Fifties: Saving on Prescription Drugs
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By Stephanie Schroeder

Chronic and acute illnesses increase as we age and corresponding drug therapies are often a very costly endeavor. “Most adults age 45 and older take an average of four prescription drugs daily — not counting vitamins, supplements or over-the-counter medicines,” according to AARP.

The Affordable Care Act has both simplified and complicated the ways in which consumers purchase prescription medication and also influenced the pricing of prescription medication.

According to an analysis by California Healthline, “The ACA does have several provisions that seek to control costs, but none of them relate to prescription drug pricing. And while lawmakers for years have suggested that the federal government be allowed to negotiate prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries, no such provision made it into the ACA.” The report continues:

In fact, the ACA might actually work to make certain drugs less affordable for some people. While all exchange plans must cover prescription drugs, insurers are permitted to use a tiered system of coverage. The highest tier — for “specialty medicines,” which typically are costly, brand-name drugs — can feature comparatively large copayments and, in some cases, a separate deductible. As a result, consumers can be required to pay 100% of a drug’s cost until the deductible is met, and those deductibles can vary by thousands of dollars.

A number of patient advocacy groups already are alleging that insurers are giving wide berth to the letter of the law and discriminating against people with chronic illnesses by forcing them to pay more out of pocket for their treatments. The National Health Law Program, the AIDS Institute and other patient advocacy groups have filed a discrimination claim with HHS, and the department is in the process of developing a response.

America’s Health Insurance Plans has responded to the claims, noting that consumers have the option to pick the plan best suited to them. Insurers have pointed to the high cost of new specialty drugs and say they are merely trying to control costs.

The second Exchange Pulse Report by Express Scripts shows Americans enrolled in healthcare Exchanges are:

  • Using their pharmacy benefit
  • More likely to use generic medications
  • Filling more prescriptions for specialty medications

According to that report, “nearly 50% of patients in a health exchange plan used their benefits.”

That report claims, “exchange enrollees…are using their pharmacy benefit in a manner consistent with traditionally insured Americans (55%).”

There is a seeming gap between drug coverage and the actual ability to afford prescription medications for many, many Americans.

Thankfully, there are various ways to save on prescription drugs and other medications.

America Saves, a non-profit national campaign involving more than 1,000 groups that encourages individuals and families to save money, recommends the following:

  • Ask your physician to consider prescribing generic drugs. Generic drugs can cost several hundred dollars less to purchase annually than brand-name drugs.
  • Find the lowest-cost place to purchase prescription drugs. Make sure to check out not only your local pharmacist but also local supermarkets, area discount centers, and mail-order pharmacies.
  • Purchase storebrand over-the-counter medications. Storebrand medications often cost 20-40 percent less than nationally advertised brands. The savings could easily exceed $100 a year.

GoodRx is an online prescription drug cost comparison tool which can tell you how much specific prescriptions cost at different pharmacies in your zip code, and also offers information on generic alternatives to some excruciatingly expensive drugs you might require.

Discount prescription cards are another way to save. My Walgreens discount Rx card saves me up to 20% on my prescription meds. Most chain pharmacies have similar programs.

There are national drug discount programs such as Rx Saving Plus that also provide discounts on prescription medications for pets. There are many bogus or just useless Rx discount cards and they are changing all the time so do your homework before investing in or signing up for one.

For those who take medications not in the drug formularies of their insurance’s carriers, these tools can be a godsend.

There are aboveground and underground prescription drug exchanges/drug recycling resources to be found. HIV medications, still so very expensive, have been exchanged between people living with HIV for some time. More recently, people taking unaffordable psychiatric meds have organized various ways to distribute unused medication through informal channels.

NerdWallet advises, “Asking your physician for a free sample of a new drug is a good way to save money, at least in the short term. Using a 10- or 14-day trial will help you decide if the prescription is right for you, and in the meantime you can shop for a discount on a longer-term supply. Drug manufacturers often offer 30-day free trials of medications through magazine coupons and online discounts.”

Also, seemingly promising patient assistance programs offered through Big Pharma are generally designed not to work for most people. If you take Lipitor, manufactured by Pfizer or Abilify, manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, and think you might qualify for Pfizer Rx Pathways or a BMS’ Patient Assistance Foundation program be prepared to be extremely frustrated. But also get prepared to be aggressive and persistent if you want to succeed in the process. The initial intake folks are call center employees with no power. Fax or mail a copy of your application with a personal letter to the drug company CEO ‘s office, ask for another review of your application if you are rejected, write your local paper or other news outlet to ask for support and assistance, and generally make a fuss if you are not feeling represented properly. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease!

Finally, the most radical act of hacks is putting your body on the line and your money where your mouth is by picketing, protesting and/or boycotting, writing to and calling your elected officials, and speaking and testifying at the city, state and federal level. Doing these activities alone can seem both isolating and futile while getting a group of folks together to work the phones and write letters or showing up together at a demonstration feels much more empowering.

There is, as we know, power in numbers. Be counted!

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