According to Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who focuses on prescription drugs, many consumers don't realize that drug costs can vary widely from one pharmacy to another. He recommends shopping around, and he says you can save hundreds of dollars if you are willing to do some price comparisons.
"Pharmacies expect it," he says of the price questions. "These days there's complete price transparency. If you want to shop around, there's no doubt you can get the information you need."
Additionally, the Maryland attorney general's office has an online tool to help consumers compare prices at some state pharmacies: www.oag.state.md.us/Drugprices/index.htm.
Marks recommends that when checking, make sure to include supermarkets and discount stores and warehouses, which often have pharmacies. Some of these stores can offer lower prices.
He singles out Costco. "It has consistently been a source of low-cost drugs," he says. The warehouse club requires shoppers to pay an annual fee.
Ask about discounts
Always ask about pharmacy discounts. Many stores offer price cuts for people over the age of 50. Others offer breaks to those without insurance. Walgreens, for example, has a Prescription Savings Club that offers more than 400 generics for $12, for a 90-day supply. Cost: $20 per year for an individual and $35 for a family.
Use Medicare Part D
Senior citizens and the disabled might also find savings through Medicare Part D, the federal program to subsidize drug costs. David Gross, an economist with AARP, says Part D has a provision for people who can't afford their medicines.
"Depending on your income, it might pay for nearly all of your drug costs," Gross says. And he notes that your income doesn't have to be below the federal poverty line for you to qualify.
Talk to your doctor
Gross also recommends talking with your doctor and pharmacist about less expensive medicines that might replace your current drugs while working just as well. Doctors "might not be aware of the financial burden you face," Gross says.
Probably the best way to save, Marks says, is to buy generic drugs rather than brand names. He says generics can cost 20 percent to 50 percent less than brand-name equivalents. Many chains, such as Wal-Mart and Target, sell generics for a few dollars for a month's supply.
Another good way to save is to order drugs online. If you take a drug regularly for a chronic condition, find out whether ordering in bulk - say, a three-month supply - can lower your costs further.
Be sure to use a reputable pharmacy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which offers tips on how to shop for prescriptions online at www.fda.gov, says to make sure any site you use requires a prescription and has a pharmacist available for questions. You also can visit the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy site at www.nabp.net. The group has a list of online prescription drug sellers.
Another resource is the Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs site: www.consumerreports.org/health/best-buy-drugs/index.htm.
Even in good times, prescription drug costs are prohibitive for many Americans. But these days, paying for your blood pressure pills or allergy medicine can break the bank. In 2007, Americans spent almost $300 billion on prescription drugs, five times more than they did 15 years ago. Even worse, only a third of that was covered mostly or entirely by insurance, according to a Consumer Reports survey. Compare that to almost two-thirds six years ago. Still, experts say there are plenty of ways to save money on prescription drugs.