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How to Save Money on Medicine

perscription drug savings

With today's rocky economy and rising healthcare costs, more and more of us are having a tough time paying for much-needed medicines. Here, expert advice on how to stretch your dollar -- without compromising your family's health. And we share tips on proper storage to make those meds last.

Take an inventory.

Bring a list of your meds and dosages to every appointment. And ask, "Why am I taking this? Do I still need it?" Your physician may suggest less expensive versions or eliminate medicines from your regimen if they're no longer necessary. He'll also check that the dosage is correct: "That's especially important for kids, since dosing is often based on weight, and young children grow rapidly," says Daniel Rauch, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at New York University Medical Centers.

Start with generics.

Americans fill nearly 2 billion generic prescriptions each year. And for good reason: no-frills versions typically cost three times less than their brand-name counterparts do, yet they contain the same active ingredients and are just as strong. The differences are in the color, flavor, and texture. Talk to your doctor -- she may be able to help you cut costs by prescribing a less expensive generic antibiotic for, say, an ear infection. But if you or your child has food allergies, read prescription inserts carefully. Fillers, coatings, and other inactive ingredients are where allergens like corn and wheat often lurk. Find generic equivalents for your prescriptions, as well as warnings and info about side effects, at drx.com.

Pay $4 for generics.

Big-chain pharmacies, including Wal-Mart and Target, charge only $4 for 30-day treatments (and smaller supplies of certain antibiotics) of hundreds of commonly prescribed generic meds. And there are no extra fees or membership costs. Some grocery store chains even have programs -- at ShopRite, for example, you can buy a 90-day supply of certain medicines for just $10. Now that's a deal!

Ask for samples.

If there's no generic equivalent for a new prescription, ask your doctor if he can give you a free sample or a starter kit -- these are often available for newer drugs. That way, you can make sure the medicine works well before you pay for a large supply of pills you may not be able to use.

Know your formulary.

That's what health insurance companies call the list of medications covered under your plan, and copays vary based on the tier level of a drug. The typical copay for a tier-one, generic drug is about $10; a tier-two brand name is $20 to $35; and a tier-three, non-preferred brand name drug costs even more. Your formulary can change every few months, so check your insurance company's Web site for updates before you visit a doctor; your physician may be able to prescribe a drug from a different tier to save you some cash.

Ask how much a medicine costs.
prescription drug bottle

Before leaving the office, inquire about the price tag of a prescribed drug. "I once really regretted not asking the pediatrician if she knew the cost of a prescription for my son," says Jessica Hartshorn, senior lifestyle editor at American Baby and mom of two. "My insurance didn't cover any of the cost, and I ended up spending $100 for diaper rash cream! Had I known, I would have definitely discussed alternatives."

Get a tax break.

Take advantage if your employer offers a Flexible Spending Account -- it lets you use pretax dollars from your salary to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses, prescription drugs, and even (in some cases) OTC drugs. The way it works: estimate what you'll spend, then you have to use that amount before year's end. If you're in the 25 percent federal tax bracket, for example, you can save about $250 for every $1,000 you contribute. That's a lot of extra bodysuits and bath toys that you can buy! Childcare expenses and mileage for transportation to the doctor may also be covered; ask your HR department for more details.

Transfer your prescriptions.

Search circulars and the Web for coupons. Many pharmacies, like CVS and Rite Aid, offer occasional coupons for gift cards (usually worth $25 to $30) if you transfer a prescription.

Cover your kids.

All U.S. states offer health insurance programs for children with working parents. They're either free or low-cost and cover prescription meds, doctor visits, hospitalizations, and much more. Rules vary by state, but in most, here's who's eligible: uninsured kids ages 18 and younger whose family earns up to $34,100 a year (for a family of four). For information, visit insurekidsnow.gov.

Sign up for discount drug cards.

If you don't have prescription drug coverage, these programs can help you save money on your meds. FamilyWize (familywize.org), for example, offers savings of 20 percent on many prescriptions, and it's free and accepted at more than 200 pharmacies nationwide. Other cards may charge a monthly or annual fee. But to avoid scams, be watchful and check out a plan before you enroll. Find more information on discount cards at rxassist.org, needymeds.org, or PPARx.org.

Stock up.
change purse

Bulk shopping sometimes saves you cash, so that's what new mom Courtney Mollura does for her family. "I'll buy a big bottle of Advil or Tylenol at Costco, since we use those often," she says. (You can get 325 tablets of Advil for $15.25 at Costco; the same supply at CVS costs more than twice as much.)

Clip coupons.

Many pharmacies offer weekly or monthly promotions on OTCs, as well as on vitamins for you and your kids -- look for ads on Web sites or in circulars. For more discounts on meds, Joann Pitti, of Port Jefferson Station, New York, logs on to manufacturers' Web sites: "I download dollar coupons for the medicines I use most for my kids, like Children's Motrin."

Order your medicines online...

Online pharmacies can shave 10 to 30 percent off brand-name meds, but just check that the site carries the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPPS) mark from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. That means the pharmacy is legit.

...or by mail.

Many insurance companies offer programs that allow you to buy a 90-day supply for the same price you'd usually pay for a 30- or 60-day supply.

Use these tips to store your medications properly -- they'll stay effective longer.

Relocate.

If you keep drugs in the medicine cabinet, move them, stat. Heat and humidity from the bathroom shower can cause medicines to break down. Store them in a kitchen cupboard or in a basket in a closet. And every six months or so, check to see that none of your medicines are dried out, discolored, or crumbling -- all signs they're past their prime.

Use the original containers.

An amber-colored or opaque bottle protects medicine that's sensitive to light. Plus, you can easily see label information and expiration dates. A note: seven-day pill organizers are a great way to organize your weekly meds, but stick to the bottle the meds came in for long-term storage.

Toss the cotton.

If there's any in the pill bottle when you first open it, get rid of it. Cotton absorbs moisture and can cause tablets to degrade faster.

Teresa Dumain is a health writer in New York City.

Originally published in the May 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.