As the economy still muddles through a funk, the price of prescription drugs continues to soar. in fact, drug prices are the fastest growing chunk of consumers' healthcare expenses, according to the non-profit Families USA.
But there are myriad ways to meaningfully trim your prescription drug bill. From generic drugs to assistance programs -- here's how to save on your meds -- and do so safely.
Avoid Brand Names
To slash as much as 70% off the price of your medications, buy generic.
"If you are given a prescription for a brand name drug from your doctor, it's always good to ask, 'Is there a generic equivalent for this drug?' " says Jody Rohlena, senior editor at Consumer Reports' ShopSmart.
A recent report by Best Buy Drugs, a division of Consumers Union (Consumer Reports' parent company), examined the safety and effectiveness of prescription medications and found that generics are as safe and effective as brand names.
Tap Low-Cost Prescription Programs
Take advantage of the price war being waged among national discounters and supermarket chains for generic prescription medications.
Walmart, Target and Kroger charge $4 for a month's supply on hundreds of generic drugs. Some other options, recommends ShopSmart, include Costco, Kmart, Drugstore.com and Walgreens, which also run reputable and highly-affordable discount drug programs.
To save a few extra dollars, ask your doctor for 90-day prescriptions. Walmart, for example, offers $4 for a month's supply and $10 for a 90-day supply. With buying in bulk, the savings will add up as you fill more prescriptions and it will also save you trips to the drugstore.
'Splitting' the Cost
If you take prescription drugs to treat a chronic illness, you might be able to save money by splitting your pills -- literally cutting them in half. With prescription medication costs soaring, many doctors are advising patients to do just that.
Pill-splitting can save money because pharmacies routinely charge roughly the same amount for a particular medication, regardless of the dose. But don't go it alone: It's crucial to consult your doctor about splitting your pills as not all medicines can be safely divided.
For example, a once-a-day drug may cost $100 for a month's supply in either a 100-milligram dose or a 50-mg dose. If your doctor prescribes the 50-mg pill, it will set you back $100. But if your doctor prescribes the 100-mg pill and instructs you to cut it in half, $100 will get you two months worth of the medication, according to The Shoppers Guide to Prescription Drugs: Pill Splitting, a report from Best Buy Drugs.
Pill-splitters cost between $5 and $10 and can be found in most drugstores.
Although the American Medical Association opposes the practice, they acknowledge that many pills can be split safely if done correctly, the Best Buy Drugs report says.
Ask for Help
If you're having trouble paying for medication, let your doctor know.
A physician can help spell out your options, such as financial help through your insurer, if you have one, and patient-assistance programs that you might qualify for.
Some pharmaceutical companies also provide free and low-cost medications to people who cannot afford to pay for medications.
RxAssist offers a database of such programs, as well as ways to manage your prescription drug expenses. DestinationRx is another source, with price comparison tools and guidance on drug-purchasing options.
Rx Savings for Seniors
The quest for affordable medication takes on a heightened sense of urgency when it comes to seniors: Most seniors are on a fixed income and are among the biggest consumers of prescription drugs, representing 34% of the prescriptions filled in the U.S., according to Families USA.
High costs mean that many seniors "have had to make some tough decisions in terms of taking their medicines," says David Allen, a spokesman for AARP.
Now the government is offering some relief. A provision in the new healthcare law is designed to take a bite out of what's known as "the doughnut hole," and over time close the coverage gap on prescription medications.
As things were last year, once seniors spent $2,830 on medication, they had to pay 100% for their prescriptions until they reached the $3,610 threshold -- a financial hardship for many older Americans. Now, when they reach the $2,830 threshold, the government will chip in 50% of the cost for brand-name drugs and 7% for generics, Allen says. By 2020, the doughnut hole will cease to exist, says Allen.
If you're on Medicare, keep track of your particular prescription costs with AARP's Doughnut Hole Calculator.
Use it to alert you when you're nearing the coverage gap. It also will offer a list of alternative, lower-cost drugs based on your prescription drug profile that you can take to your doctor to discuss whether switching to a lower-cost drug will work for you.
In addition, AARP provides a handy Drug Savings Tool link where consumers can compare a drug's efficacy and price against alternative medications listed by Best Buy Drugs.
Buyer Beware: Pharmacy Fraud
Pharmacy fraud is alive and well and living on the Internet. Scam artists are there seeking money, or personal information to commit identity theft.
These types of predators mostly hunt their prey online, says Sally Hurme, senior product manager of education and outreach for AARP, who tracks pharmacy scams that target the entire drug-purchasing population.
When an online offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. An email offer for prescription medications at bargain basement prices (that does not come directly from a well-known retailer or your health insurance company) is most likely a scam, Hurme says. And email that says "Viagra for $10" or "Prilosec for $5," for example, should go right in your email trash -- chances are that it will wind up in your spam folder anyway.
Scam artists often masquerade as online pharmacists. They woo consumers to pay upfront in exchange for a supposed drug discount card. Shoppers who "order" their medications receive nothing at all, or drugs that are compromised in some way -- be they expired or at the wrong dosage.
Be skeptical. Before filling a prescription online, be sure that the pharmacy requires a doctor's prescription. And never provide your personal information -- such as your Social Security number, credit card or health history -- to a website unless you've verified that it's secure, says AARP.