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Save money on medications

March 7, 2008

Between skyrocketing prescription drug prices, rising insurance copayments and an aging population, it's not surprising more and more people are having difficulty paying for their medications.

If that sounds like you or someone you know, here are a few money-saving tips:

Go generic. Unlike generic cereal or soup, where quality varies, generic drugs by law must conform to strict Food and Drug Administration guidelines for quality, strength, purity and stability. Generics usually cost a fraction of brand-name counterparts, and many insurance plans assign them significantly lower copayments. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if generic equivalents exist for your medications.

Bulk up. Many insurers encourage ordering routinely taken drugs in larger quantities from mail-order pharmacies. For example, a 90-day supply of blood-pressure medication might have the same copayment as a 30- or 60-day supply. Multiply that by several drugs over a year and savings could really add up.

Shop around. Because prices often vary widely, call or check Websites of several pharmacies, including online-only chains, to find the best deal. Two cautions: In addition to your doctor, make sure at least one pharmacist is aware of all medications you take (including over-the-counter) to prevent accidental drug interactions; and use only online pharmacies certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (https://nabp.pharmacy.)

Pill splitting. Many drugs come in double-dosage tablets that cost close to or the same as a lower dosage. By splitting the larger dosage in half, you essentially get two doses for the price of one. Caution: Many pills should never be split, including time-release and coated medications, so always ask your doctor or pharmacist first.

Drug assistance programs. Most pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs (PAPs) that provide uninsured and low-income people access to prescription drugs they couldn't otherwise afford. There's lots of paperwork, but you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars if you meet their eligibility requirements.

Ask your doctor, pharmacist or health clinic how to proceed, or visit Partnership for Prescription Assistance (www.pparx.org), which has enrollment information on over 475 public and private PAPs, including links to Medicaid programs. Also helpful are RxAssist (www.rxassist.org), NeedyMeds (www.needymeds.com) and Consumer Reports, which explains how PAPs work (at www.crbestbuydrugs.org, click on "Prescription Drug Assistance Programs").

Medicare. Medicare beneficiaries can sign up for Medicare Part D, which provides prescription drug coverage through dozens of plans offered by private insurers. Monthly premiums, copayment amounts, out-of-pocket limits and drugs covered under the plans vary considerably, so you'll need to be very careful when choosing the best plan for your situation. Read the information at www.medicare.gov/pdphome.asp for guidance on choosing the right plan. Another good resource is AARP's comprehensive guide to Medicare at www.aarp.org/health/medicare.

Note that extra assistance with premium payments is available to low-income people. And, unless you turn 65 or otherwise become eligible for Medicare during the year (for example, through a qualifying disability), you'll need to wait for next year's open enrollment period in mid-November to join.

Tax advantages. If your employer offers a health care flexible spending account (FSA), sign up. You can use pretax dollars to pay for prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as other healthcare-related expenses, reducing your taxable income and thereby lowering your taxes substantially. To learn how FSAs work, visit Visa's free personal financial management site, Practical Money Skills for Life (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/benefits.)

Bottom line: Don't let your health suffer because of high medication costs.


This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.