At his old job, Eli Lehrer used pre-tax money in his flexible spending account (FSA) to buy everything from pricey prescription drugs to over-the-counter allergy medications. He bought it all at his local pharmacy, without paying much attention to the price tags. "I paid for them with my FSA debit card, so it didn't feel like real money," he admits. But then he moved to a company that didn't offer an FSA, and he suddenly realized he was spending way too much, especially on OTC medications.
So Lehrer and his wife, Kari, started doing a little research, and the price breaks they found amazed them. They discovered, for example, that Amazon would sell them three months worth of generic Claritin-the popular allergy medication-for $17. Their corner drugstore was charging them $100. By shopping around for all their drugs, "we think we're going to save $1,000 a year," says Lehrer, national director of the Heartland Institute's Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate in Washington, D.C.
Starting next year, many Americans are going to find themselves in a similar position to the Lehrers. That's because under the new health reform legislation, even people with FSAs won't be able to use those accounts to buy OTC medications without prescriptions. That will increase the pressure on consumers to find new ways to save-not just on OTC drugs, but on prescription medications, too. Here are three easy steps you can take now to cut your own drug bill:
Buy in bulk.
If you have money left over in your FSA account for this year and you're facing the dreaded use-it-or-lose-it requirement, stock up before the end of the year on your favorite OTC drugs. Most medicines can be stored safely for a year or more, and you'd be wise to take advantage of the tax break while you still have it.
You can also buy your prescription drugs in bulk. Most major prescription plans will allow you to receive, by mail, three months worth of a medicine you take regularly for the price of two monthly co-pays.
If you have a plan that requires you to pay something other than a flat co-pay for your prescriptions-such as a percentage cost-share-check the prices at your local Sam's Club or Costco. You can get prescriptions at these discount clubs without being a member, and most of them will quote you a price on the phone. Angil Tarach-Ritchey, a nurse and homecare provider in Ann Arbor, Mich., found she could buy an anti-viral medication at Sam's Club for $950, vs. $1,200 at her local pharmacy. "Some drugs there are cheaper by half," she says. How does she get past those clerks who demand to see membership cards at the door? "I say, ‘I'm just using the pharmacy.'"
Mine multiple sources for discounts.
Ever since Wal-Mart started offering one-month supplies of generic prescription drugs for $4 in 2006, virtually every major drug chain has followed up with similar offers. And now several employers are teaming up with drug stores to cut costs even further. In 2008, for example, Caterpillar started waiving co-payments all together on 2,500 generic drugs, provided employees buy them from Wal-Mart or Sam's Club, which is owned by Wal-Mart. "We're seeing more and more of that," says Dr. John Agwunobi, president of Wal-Mart's health and wellness division."You need to check with your employer to see what types of discount programs they're offering."
Houston-based CVS pharmacist Jeff McClusky adds that patients should hunt around for discounts offered by drugmakers. Many of the Web sites advertising newer brand-name drugs include coupons you can print at home. Your doctor might be able to help, too: Drug salespeople often encourage doctors to prescribe new drugs by giving them discount cards that they can pass along to patients. "I've seen $50 co-pays dropped to $10, and the offers are usually good for a full year's supply," McClusky says.
Review your prescriptions with your doctor.
With health care costs on the rise, it's as good a time as ever to scrutinize the list of drugs you're on and consider cutting some out all together. "Millions of people are taking medicines for constipation, insomnia and other issues that arise at times, but that do not require continued treatment," says Dr. Caleb Alexander, assistant professor in the department of medicine at the University of Chicago. Alexander, who maintains a Web site on prescription costs, suggests that making small changes to your diet or lifestyle can be a good substitute for taking some drugs chronically. "It's crucial to talk to your doctor about how you can make your medication list as lean and affordable as possible."