Insights:

Pharmaceutical companies, the federal government, and multiple programs offer ways to save money on medications.

We often need prescription drugs during our lives, but the price tag can be exorbitant, with prescription prices rising every year.

Sometimes, people are faced with difficult decisions to pay for prescription drug medications. Do they cut back on groceries to afford their prescriptions? Do they turn down the heat in the winter?

There may be some help — drug discount programs and even free prescription drugs. You could be missing out on hundreds, even thousands of dollars worth of savings each year on the medications you take every day.

With drug prices only expected to increase, it’s critical that patients find free and low-cost drugs that keep their prescriptions within reach without breaking the bank.

The state of prescription drugs in the U.S.

In the U.S., the prescription drug industry was worth nearly $370 billion in 2019 alone, and while fewer people take prescription drugs, these drugs accounted for most of the drug costs in 2016 with $180 billion in national sales.

It’s a consistent trend. Specialty drugs comprise more than half of the drugs pending FDA approval in 2019. Rand reports that U.S. prescription drug prices are more than 2.5 times the cost of prescriptions in the rest of the world.

It’s all too easy for these costs to add up. In 2020, the average annual cost was $6,604 for just one chronic, brand-name medication. People with multiple prescriptions can quickly find themselves underwater from the extreme financial burden, especially when insurance coverage isn’t enough to cover the bill. In 2018, the University of Chicago’s NORC found that 32% of Americans have been unable to obtain prescriptions or have taken lower doses of medication due to cost.

Phil Baker, a pharmacist and the founder of Memphis-based Good Shepherd Pharmacy, RemediChain, and HaloScrips, has designed his business to provide reduced and zero-cost prescription benefits. He shares with us a price comparison of popular medications today based on price through different cost-saving programs.

2020 average prescription drug prices

DrugDoseQuantityKroeger membership (+$3 month)Walgreens membership (+$1.67 month)Amazon Prime price (+$12.99 month)GoldRx Gold (+$6 month)Good Shepherd Pharmacy (+$0 month)
Atorvastatin20mg30$6$15$15.23$4$5
Amlodipine10mg30Free$10$8.05$2.53$5
Metformin500mg60Free$4$3.14$2.87$5
Lisinopril10mg30Free$5$3.36$2.47$5
HCTZ25mg30$3$5$15.90$2.09$5
Carvedilol6.25mg60$3$10$2.94$3.38$5
Furosemide20mg30$3$5$3.26$2.58$5
Pantoprazole40mg30$3$105.99$15.18$4$5
Vitamin D250,000 units4$3$4$5.35$2.43$5
Clopidogrel75mg30$3$15$13.61$4$5
Montelukast10mg30Free$15$15.02$4.20$5

Source: Good Shepherd Pharmacy

Key Takeaways

  • Many drug manufacturers provide help with drug costs through a patient assistance program that may offer free or low cost prescriptions.
  • Programs and companies also offer ways to save money on prescriptions, including subscription-based programs.
  • The Extra Help program is a government prescription drug assistance program, which has household income requirements.
  • Using generic drugs rather than brand names is another way to save money on your prescriptions.
  • Manufacturer rebates and buying through a mail-order pharmacy are other avenues to potential savings for drug coverage.

What not do when you can’t afford your medication

There’s one thing you should not do if you’re having trouble paying for prescription drugs — stop taking your needed medicine.

This is an issue facing Americans struggling to make ends meet, but there are possible programs that can help.

Let’s look at those programs.

How to get free or discounted prescription drugs

There are many types of assistance available to help with your prescription costs. With the help of these programs, qualifying individuals can receive free or discounted prescription drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies

Many pharmaceutical companies have programs designed to assist with prescription medications. Your doctor or health care provider can supply the name of your prescription manufacturer to simplify the search process.

Many manufacturers provide the information directly on their websites through a Pharmaceutical Assistance Plan.

Always check with your pharmaceutical company to see what kind of discounts and assistance may be available to help with your medications. The AAFA provides a helpful listing of drug company assistance programs.

Partnership for Prescription Assistance

The Partnership for Prescription Assistance organization helps make medications and prescription drugs more affordable for those struggling with additional financial burdens.

Its database is free to use and includes over 400 programs with more than 5,000 medications available for either reduced-cost or zero-cost prescription benefits.

PhRMA Medicine Assistance Tool (MAT)

PHRMA’s Medicine Assistance Tool (MAT) is a free search engine that is open to patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers to use as a way to find patient assistance programs.

It also offers extensive resources on important areas like prescription drug costs, Medicare, and health insurance plans to help you understand both the coverage you already have and the assistance that you need.

Needy Meds

Originally started by a doctor and social worker duo, Needy Meds is a non-profit organization that helps put patients in touch with prescription assistance programs. It also offers its NeedyMeds Drug Card.

Needy Meds says that its members have saved almost $310 million on prescriptions.

RX Assist

Created by Volunteers in Health, RX Assist is a program founded in affiliation with Brown University. It helps put patients in touch with pharmaceutical assistance programs, so you know how to get free medications and reduced prescriptions. 

Generic vs. brand-name drugs

AARP’s Public Policy Institute reported in 2021 that retail prices for popular brand-name drugs increased by an average of nearly 3% in a single year. This is more than twice the rate of average inflation. However, generic drugs could be the answer to your prescription woes.

A generic prescription drug is a medication that copies an existing, FDA-approved drug. It provides the same results, copying factors of the brand-name drug such as dosage form, strength, administration, quality, and performance characteristics. This makes both the benefits and risks equally the same. These drugs are reviewed each year by the FDA Generic Drugs Program.

Dr. James Lott, pharmacist and founder of Scripted, who has spoken at both the White House and FDA on a wide array of drug-related matters, said there are few differences between generics and brand names in most scenarios.

“Our FDA has an approval process for both brands and generics, which makes the drugs go through rigorous testing to make sure the drugs are practically the same. The only variance is typically in branding and costs,” Lott says.

Dr. Daniel Boyer of Farr Institute says, “Generic drugs are basically cheaper than the original medical drugs and can treat your medical condition perfectly as well. However, you need to contact your doctor before purchasing them to give you a go-ahead.”

With prices quickly climbing, it’s worth it for many people to consider generic drugs for their prescriptions. A report from the American Medical Association shows that generic medicines can be up to 85% cheaper than brand-name drugs.

Your insurance company may be able to provide invaluable advice regarding support and assistance programs for generic versions of your regular prescriptions.

Government patient assistance programs

There are federal government prescription drug assistance programs that can provide additional assistance for your medications.

Medicare

There is additional coverage available from Medicare to supplement your existing health insurance coverage. These are meant to protect against gaps in coverage, although they likely come at an additional expense.

Extra Help

From Medicare and Social Security comes Extra Help, a program to make prescription medicines accessible to those with low income. It limits the amount you pay for your medication with a maximum cost of $3.70 for generic drugs and $9.20 for brand-name prescriptions.

You can apply online for what the program estimates is about $5,000 worth of savings in prescription drugs. The 2021 annual income limit is $19,140 for individuals and $25,860 for married couples living together, but all those requiring assistance are encouraged to apply.

Those who are eligible for Medicaid or certain Medicare Savings Programs are automatically eligible.

Benefits CheckUp

The National Council on Aging provides the Benefits CheckUp tool that allows you to search more than 2,500 benefit programs across the U.S. The program has provided more than $40.6 billion in benefits for its over 9.5 million users.

In addition to prescription assistance, users can save money on other health costs, such as health plan deductibles. These benefits save an average of $4,900 per year.

State prescription assistance programs

In addition to federal benefits, many state programs offer help with your prescriptions. You can also receive help paying for medical premiums and other drug costs. You can search the federal Medicare database to find programs in your state.

Other ways to save on prescriptions

  • Work with a medical social worker: Ask your doctor for a referral to a medical social worker who can help you find prescription support, including grants. These individuals are typically affiliated with local hospitals or medical practices.
  • Ask your pharmacist: In its 2021 report, JP Griffin notes that pharmacies are now legally allowed to inform patients whether they will save money by paying in cash instead of through their insurance.  
  • Consider a mail-order pharmacy: Switching to a mail order pharmacy could potentially help you find lower prices for your prescriptions.
  • Download GoodRx: GoodRx allows users to search by drug name for active coupons that can save you up to 80% at the register.

Expert tips to save money on prescription drugs

Beyond programs, there are other ways you can save on prescription drug medications.

Consider a membership-based prescription plan

A good place to start is looking at membership pharmacies, including Good Shepherd, or dedicated membership discount card programs like ones offered by Walgreens or Kroger.

“Membership-based prescription plans often operate independently of insurance plans. Patients pay a membership fee and then access the medications they need free, at cost or at a reduced cost,” Baker says.

Consider manufacturer rebates

“Rebates are like coupons offered by some manufacturers that can be redeemed in exchange for drugs prescribed,” explains Dr. Boyer.

Check retailer programs

“People looking for savings cards should explore programs with large retail chains as the programs are less known but can provide powerful savings,” says Dr. Lott. “Things like CVS Savings tool or Walgreens savings program have a big impact.”

Be a value advocate

“One of the best ways to save on prescription drugs is to be what I call a value advocate,” says Aaron Emmel. A pharmacist and a board-certified pharmacotherapy specialist, he is the founder and director of education programs at PharmacyTechScholar.com.

“Ask your healthcare provider if the medication that is being offered to you is the most cost-effective for your situation.”

Shop around

“Prescription prices vary widely by pharmacy and by payment method,” says Baker. “One insurance plan pays a different price than another, and both of those prices are different from the cash price. It’s a confusing web, and one of the best ways for an individual to access their prescriptions at the best price is to shop around and find the true cost, not the list price.”

With new programs and apps being added every day, there are many expanding opportunities to help American citizens find affordable prescriptions and medical assistance for their families.