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Discount drug cards can pay off for some

Paying for prescription medications is a major expense for many people. It's even more difficult if you don't have health care coverage or your plan doesn't include prescriptions.

In these situations, a prescription discount card could be an answer.

Don't confuse these cards with real insurance and don't expect to save a fortune, but they are better than nothing.

Last year, at the request of Congressional Democrats opposed to President Bush's Medicare prescription-drug proposal, the General Accountability Office conducted a study of five of the largest discount card plans. The GAO compared prices for 17 popular medications with regular retail prices at pharmacies and on the Internet and determined that the average discount was less than 10 percent on brand-name drugs.

"For people at the margins who are left out, it's a second-best solution," says J.B. Silvers, associate dean at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and a specialist in health care economics. "Nobody should have to pay full retail, but it's not drug coverage."

To see if a discount card can save you some money, be prepared to do some work. Hundreds of prescription drug cards are available. Some are free. Some have monthly fees. Some have age or income restrictions. Not all cards cover all drugs. And not all pharmacies accept all cards.

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The only way to get a specific price quote on a specific drug is to comparison shop aggressively. Even then, you may not be able to get the full answer because many discount card companies won't tell you how much the drug you need will cost until you've anted up the fee for the card.

So many drugs, so little time
But if you're willing to do the research, you might be able to shave some off your medication bills.

Start by researching prices on the drugs you take. Several good online resources can help.

The Kaiser Family Foundation has studied discount cards in depth. You can read its report on your computer screen, but it's easier to compare if you print it out (although it will take lots of paper and ink). Among other things, the study has a chart that compares prices of some frequently prescribed drugs after discounts from popular cards are applied. There also is a list of prices and how to qualify for some of the plans the foundation believes are best, plus a list of state and association programs that offer prescription discounts.

Benefits Checkup is a free program sponsored by the National Council on Aging, but you don't have to be older to find it useful. Filling out the personal information form takes about 20 minutes. When you're finished, the database spits out an analysis of services and discounts for which you are eligible, including some prescription drug cards. Benefits Checkup is particularly useful for people whose incomes are low.

RxDiscount Guide is the best online tool for finding prescription discount cards, but it isn't free. Access costs $9.95 per day or $49.95 a month. It allows you to search a database of more than 200 discount prescription drug programs, more than 100 state-sponsored programs, a half-dozen pharmaceutical company charitable plans and 10 Canadian pharmacy programs. Search for medications by brand or generic name.

If you don't have time for a full-scale investigation of pharmaceutical plans, here are some discount cards that are worth looking into:

  • If you're 50 or older, AARP offers a MemberRx Choice card for $15 annually. You can check your medication prices online before you buy. Pharmacies all over the country accept this card. Discounts are up to 50 percent, with the highest amounts on generics.
  • Together Rx is a free cooperative plan devised by major pharmaceutical companies, some say to head off government price control. Players include Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Aventis Pharmaceuticals Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical Inc. If you buy name-brand prescription drugs, you likely buy them from one of these companies and can benefit from program discounts of up to 40 percent. To be eligible, you must be receiving Medicare and make less than $28,000 if you are single or $38,000 if you are married. You cannot be eligible for any other prescription drug coverage.
  • Veterans and their families are eligible for the Veterans Advantage Prescription plan. Veterans' memberships are free; families pay $19.95 per year. Savings are up to 65 percent on generic drugs and a large number of pharmacies participate in this plan.

Pharmaceutical companies also have programs to aid the needy. They generally work through health care agencies, but at least one program is designed for people whose income is low, but not low enough to qualify for entitlement programs. The Medicine Program does set income requirements, but even if you earn more, you may qualify if you need medicine for a catastrophic illness like cancer or AIDs. There's a $5 fee per prescription, refunded if the application is denied. If approved, the medicines are free.

Care Entrée goes beyond prescriptions and is worth a look if you have high-deductible medical insurance or no insurance at all. The program negotiates access to health care providers including doctors, hospitals and pharmacy benefits, giving participants care at the same prices that major insurers pay doctors. This is not insurance, but it can make costs more manageable. A family can get the total package for $69 per month. For $9.95 per month, a family can buy just the prescription drug, dental, vision and hearing coverage.

Northward, ho!
Many patients, most notably those who require regular medication for chronic ailments, are looking to Canadian pharmaceuticals, which generally are much cheaper than their U.S. counterparts.

Liz Keating, creator of the RxDiscount Guide, says her favorite Canadian online pharmacy is Aptecha, where name-brand drugs can be as much as 75 percent cheaper than they are in the United States. Keating contends that Canadian pharmacies are no less reliable than those in America and notes that some insurers are now reimbursing patients for drugs purchased in Canada.

For people who insist on buying their medications in the United States, Keating believes discount cards have their place. But she's not certain they're the least expensive answer. She advocates negotiating your own discount plan.

"Just go to your neighborhood pharmacist," she says, "and ask, 'What is the best deal that you can give me on this drug?' Most of them will drop the price at least as much as you would get with a card and sometimes more."

Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan.

-- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003

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