Shopper’s Guide to Navigating Discount Drug Programs

It’s no secret that the cost of pharmaceuticals in the US is soaring. According a report published by Health Affairs in January 2019, the cost of oral and injectable brand-name drugs has increased annually by 9 and 15 percent, respectively, between 2008 and 2016. The research concluded that the rising cost of generic and specialty drugs were driven mostly by new product entry while the rising costs of brand-name drugs were a result of existing drug price inflation.

In the face of soaring drug prices, consumers have found an ally in their local big box stores, such as Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger, Target, etc. Roughly 4 out of 10 Americans rely on these programs to find savings for their prescription drugs. Generic drugs are often the focus, though brand-name and specialty drugs are also offered. Recent data shows that these drugs account for 85 percent of the retail pharmacy medicines prescribed in the US.

Retailers are able to sell pharmaceuticals at such deep discounts because they buy in bulk or they use membership fees to offset costs. Some stores say they will lose money through their pharmacy programs, but expect to make up the difference through sales elsewhere in the store, especially with big ticket items like jewelry and electronics.

There are numerous differences among the programs offered by each retailer. Some pharmacies require a membership or an annual fee, while others require only a doctor’s prescription. Some memberships need to be renewed annually, while others are more open-ended. Learning the differences among each can be vital in finding the cheapest and most convenient retailer.

Generic medications included in these programs may even be cheaper than an insurance co-payment. For example, if there is a $10 co-pay, but the drug needed is offered by a pharmacy for $4, the consumer  should be eligible for the cheaper price. Consumers should also ask the pharmacist how this coordinates with Medicaid and Medicare.

Consumers who prefer to shop at their local drug store should check and see if their corner pharmacy will match the price of the big box store.

When it comes to price matching medications, it’s important to do your homework. Determine which retailers offer the best value by asking what and who is covered and whether or not there is a membership fee. The savings can be significant.

Resources

https://www.consumerreports.org/drug-prices/drug-discount-programs-can-save-you-big-on-generics/

https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2019.00520

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