More insurers want to tie drug payments to health outcomes.
Photograph by John Ewing — Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
By Jean Chatzky
February 3, 2015

You know all that money you’re saving at the pump? You’re spending some of it on the increased prices you’re paying for the prescriptions in your medicine chest. Prices on prescription meds rose 10.9% overall in 2014, according to a new study by drug-price researcher Truveris.

Breaking that down further, the study found prices on brand name drugs spiked 14.8% while generics rose 4.9%. And people who suffer from some ailments – like muscle pain and stiffness (where prices rose 29.8%), inflammation (26.6%) and heart disease (19.4%) – were hit harder in the wallet than others. Although gas prices have headed (albeit, modestly) in the other direction, Truveris CEO Bryan Birch expects prescription drug inflation, particularly in generics, to continue this year. “The FDA cracked down on the quality [among generic] manufacturers,” he explains. “The unintended consequence has been consolidation and folks going out of business. Because of the reduced competition, some prices got out of whack.” So what’s a consumer to do? A few suggestions.

Always look for a generic alternative first. This should go without saying, but this is a question to raise with the doctor writing the prescription. If no generic is available, you want to be sure whatever drug is being prescribed is covered before you even get to the pharmacy. If it isn’t – and this is information you should be able to find out (even if you have to call the pharmacy yourself) before you leave the doctor’s office, ask for a substitute. “Consumers should know before they leave the office: ‘What’s this going to cost me,’” Birch says.

Shop around like you would for any other consumer good. The market for prescription drugs is strangely similar to the market for cars, electronics and many other items. “It depends on the manufacturer, what’s coming off patent, and what other drugs are out there,” says Michelle Katz, a nurse and author of Healthcare Made Easy. “It’s kind of like the stock market. There are always promotions and sales, you just have to know about them.”

Katz’s suggested shortcut is an app called GoodRX available for iPhone and Android. You download it (or use it online at goodrx.com) and put in the name of the drug you’re looking for as well as the length of the prescription and number of milligrams. It spits back a map of pharmacies near you along with their prices. Sometimes you’ll get a downloadable coupon to bring the price into the desired range. “I like it because my grandmother can use it,” Katz says.

Ask for coupons and discount cards. Often when I go to the allergist with my daughter, I’ll leave with coupons or multi-use discount cards/codes for the meds she’s been prescribed. I get these things because my doctor is on top of the situation. Some aren’t as coupon conscious, but ask. Ask also at the pharmacy, Katz says. “Sometimes manufacturers will give pharmacies coupons that they can keep in the back of their stores. If you ask, they’ll sometimes give you the discount.”

Always check the cash price, too. Prescription drug prices aren’t the only thing on the rise. According to the Pharmacy Benefit Management Institute, co-pays on generics, brand-name and specialty drugs have been heading up as well. That’s why it makes sense, particularly with generic drugs, to ask how much you’d pay for your prescription if you didn’t submit it to insurance. There are times, Katz notes, when it’s actually less.

Finally, buy a pill splitter. If you take a medication that’s scored down the middle, ask about the option of purchasing a pill with twice your dose and splitting it to make it last twice as long. Not all doctors will do this for you, the experts caution, particularly if what you’re taking is pain medication, but it’s certainly worth asking. After all, if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.

Kelly Hultgren contributed to this report.

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