Many people rely on medication to maintain their quality of life, and in some cases, keep them alive. But some un- and underinsured Americans have to choose between taking these necessary medications and being able to afford other expenses.

In fact, 8 percent of adult Americans in 2015 didn’t take medicine as prescribed because they could not afford these medications. This percentage doubles for people with diabetes, according to a 2018 study.

Soaring prescription costs

According to a new report from the RAND Corporation, prescription drug prices in the United States are about 2.5 times the cost of the same drug in other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Generic medication is slightly cheaper in the United States compared to other countries. Though generic medication accounts for 84 percent of drugs sold in the country, it is only 12 percent of total pharmaceutical drug spending.

Meanwhile, brand-name prescriptions cost 3.44 times that of other nations, and they keep getting more expensive. According to a 2018 AARP study, retail prices on 267 brand-name prescriptions increased by an average of 5.8 percent between 2006 and 2018. For reference, the general inflation rate was 2.4 percent during this same time period.

If your prescriptions are covered by insurance, you might not have noticed a drastic increase in prescription prices. But it impacts everyone.

“Soaring drug prices can be hidden from those whom health insurance covers all but a copay,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in a 2019 editorial. “But the costs can have a major impact on the healthcare system and ultimately affect everyone by driving up healthcare premiums and spending on taxpayer-funded premiums like Medicare.”

The impact of COVID-19

The pandemic has dealt a blow to many who were already struggling to afford prescription drugs and other medical expenses, as many Americans have suffered increased economic insecurity and job loss. An August 2020 report from the Economic Policy Institute estimates that 12 million Americans had lost access to employer-sponsored insurance in the first months of the pandemic.

Recent legislation, however, provides temporary relief for those who have been impacted by the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11, includes several provisions aimed at making health insurance more accessible, such as:

  • Expanded ACA subsidies to lower the monthly insurance premiums for certain households who purchase insurance through or their state marketplace
  • Full COBRA premium subsidies between April 1, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2021
  • Expanded Medicaid eligibility and new incentives to entice the states that have not yet expanded their Medicaid program to include federal funds

Ways to cut costs on your medication

If you’re struggling to afford your medication, these options can help you save money and access the assistance you need.

Consider pharmaceutical assistance programs

Certain pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs for people who need help paying for prescription drugs and those who spend a certain amount of money on medication. Your doctor might be able to help you navigate these programs and find one that works for you.

You can also use online databases, like Rx Assist. You can search the medication you take, and Rx Assist will give you a list of assistance programs to consider.

Shop around for the best prices

The price of prescription drugs can vary between pharmacies—sometimes significantly. For example, Lexapro could cost someone in Charlotte, North Carolina, without insurance anywhere from $368.79 to $411.30, according to SingleCare. Though significantly cheaper, the generic alternative still shows differing prices: $8.99 to $43.49.

To compare prices for your prescription, call local pharmacies or use a comparison tool like SingleCare, GoodRx or ScriptSave WellRx. These tools allow you to view drug prices at your local pharmacies and offer coupons to help you save. Even if your insurance covers your medication, you might be able to find a better deal on one of these sites.

Tread carefully with credit cards

Most of the time, pulling out your credit card for purchases that aren’t in your budget isn’t good for your wallet. But if you’re out of options or need a stopgap while you find a long-term solution, the right credit card can be a temporary lifeline that allows you to continue taking the medication you need.

Designed to give people more financing options for medical expenses, medical credit cards offer promotions like deferred interest on qualified purchases. But before you decide to sign up, read the fine print and make a plan to pay any purchases off before the promotion period ends.

“I’m skeptical of medical credit cards. The interest rates are often high and even the 0 percent promotions can backfire,” says Bankrate Industry Analyst Ted Rossman. “CareCredit, for example, phrases these as deferred interest. So if you don’t pay your entire balance before the clock runs out, they charge interest retroactively.”

Instead, he recommends applying for a credit card with the best 0 percent intro APR terms you can find. Depending on your credit score, you might be able to snag a card with 0 percent interest for 18 months. You will eventually need to pay these charges back, but it could give you some time to find a better option. And unlike medical credit cards, 0 percent offers typically do not have deferred interest, so interest will only begin to accrue when the promotional period is up.

Final thoughts

The cost of prescription medication can add up quickly, but that doesn’t mean you should stop taking the medication you need. If you’ve exhausted all of your options, discuss your situation with your doctor—they might be able to offer additional help.

Depending on the medication you take, your doctor might be able to switch you from a brand-name medication to the generic version, which runs an average of 80 to 85 percent cheaper, according to GoodRx. Or, they might be able to provide you with some sample drugs while you find a long-term financing solution.

And if you do make the hard decision to ration your medication—or stop taking it completely—it’s important to let your doctor know. Without that information, they won’t be able to put together a treatment plan that helps you.