Taking Control

Published November 1, 2003

Many prescription drugs, brand name as well as generic, are more expensive in the United States than in other countries. That is an indisputable fact.

It is also indisputable that the newly popular approach to that problem–buying drugs from other countries, either over the Internet or by traveling to Canada or elsewhere directly–poses a safety risk that is very difficult to justify. (See my “Drug Reimportation Roulette.”)

Safer options are available. The politicians don’t talk about them much, because if you take advantage of these opportunities they don’t get credit for helping you save money. But the politicians also won’t take the blame if a mislabeled, counterfeit, or adulterated drug you buy over the Internet makes your condition worse … or leaves your family with one fewer loved one to care for.

Don’t leave your health–or your prescription drug costs–in the hands of politicians. There are many things you can do to take control.

1 Shop Around

A recent survey of prescription drug pricing in Missouri discovered consumers can save up to 81 percent on their prescriptions simply by comparison shopping.

The study obtained prescription prices by calling pharmacies in Jefferson City, St. Louis, and Sedalia in central Missouri. The pharmacies included Tolson Drug, Cordes, Bing’s, Walgreens, Medicine Shoppe, Osco, Gerbes, Schnuck’s, and Wal-Mart. Prices were collected for a 30-day supply of one of four popular prescription medications in commonly prescribed dosages.

Key findings of the survey:

  • For generic prescription drugs, the pharmacy offering the lowest price was, on average, 81 percent less than the highest-priced pharmacy
  • For brand-name drugs, comparison-shopping could achieve an average savings of 9.7 percent
  • The lowest generic drug prices were spread evenly among supermarkets, chain drug stores, and independent retailers
  • Independent drug stores offered significantly lower costs on brand-name drugs.

2 Pill-Splitting

Accomplished with an inexpensive pill-cutter available at your drugstore, pill-splitting saves money because the cost of a larger-dose tablet for some prescriptions is very nearly the same as the cost of a smaller-dose tablet.

For example, 50 milligram tablets of Zoloft, an antidepressant, cost about $227 per 100. Buying enough for 200 days would cost $454.

But 100 milligram tablets of Zoloft cost about $233 per 100. A patient could split the 100 tablets into 200 50 milligram doses, saving $221 on that prescription alone.

“When properly implemented, pill-splitting can be a safe, viable cost-saving strategy,” noted Dr. Randall Stafford, a researcher at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

While not all drugs can be split–time-release capsules, for example, cannot be–popular medications like Lipitor, Paxil, Seerzone, Viagra, Zoloft, and Celexa can be.

Pill-splitting also saves money because a prescription lasts twice as long. A patient taking a daily 50 milligram dose of Zoloft for 200 days makes just one co-payment if she buys a 100-day supply of 100 milligram tablets. She must make two co-payments if buying two 100-day supplies of 50 milligram tablets.

3 90-Day Supply

Ask your doctor for a 90-day prescription for a drug you use for a long-term or chronic condition. Pharmacy surveys suggest buying a 90-day supply, rather than buying three 30-day supplies, can cut patient costs by approximately one-third. It’s like buying two months and getting the third free.

4 Cheaper than Canada

Forty-eight U.S. pharmaceutical companies offer free or minimal cost discount drug cards and patient assistance programs. (See “Millions Already Benefit from Private Rx Discount Programs.”) Last year alone, these companies provided free prescription medicines to more than 5.5 million patients in the United States.

5 Take Advantage of What’s Available

Senior citizens and the disabled should contact their state Departments of Health and ask about senior care, circuit breaker, or pharmaceutical assistance programs. Veterans should contact the Veterans Administration at 800/827-1000 or go online at http://www.va.gov.

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].