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For cheaper prescription drugs, see your doctor
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These factors have spurred insurers to bump up prescription drug benefit co-pays in an effort to shift more costs to consumers.

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"For years, health care in the U.S. was very paternalistic and there was no discussion between doctors and patients in terms of which drug was best not only for treatment but cost," says Devon Herrick, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and author of "Shopping for Drugs." "But now tiered co-payments provide an incentive for consumers to ask questions about cost, because if they can get a generic instead of a brand name, their payment will be lower."

Types of drugs available
Prescription drugs aren't the only category of medications on the market. Because cost containment is such an important issue, it's worth considering other options such as over-the-counter drugs and alternative therapies when looking at medications. Here's an overview:

  • Brand-name drugs. Developed and manufactured by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, brand-name drugs in the United States get patent protection for 17 years and are subject to rigorous testing and approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
  • Generic drugs. Once a brand-name drug goes off patent, other drug companies are legally allowed to manufacture the drug without undergoing FDA testing and approval. Generics typically cost 30 percent to 80 percent less than the equivalent brand-name drug, according to the FDA
  • Over-the-counter medications. Medications that the FDA approves that can be sold without a doctor's prescription are considered OTC. In some cases, run-of-the-mill, over-the-counter drugs can be just as effective in treating the symptoms of an illness or disease as an expensive brand-name drug.
  • Alternative remedies. Natural and herbal remedies aren't regulated by the FDA. Standards vary in terms of manufacturing and packaging, and herbal remedies may interact in unexpected ways with medications. Before you take herbal remedies, do some research.

There are different ways to get prescription medicine, including locally owned pharmacies, chain drug or grocery stores, online pharmacies, and mail order. For more on online pharmacies, see "Buying prescriptions online: a safe bet?"

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