Prescription-drug cards got their start in the 1980s, and by now they’re all over the place. There are cheap cards, free cards, cards good for other health stuff, cards that you print out like a coupon on your computer. You can find a card online designed for residents of the Big Apple, one that covers the whole state of Florida, and a card offered by Delaware County, Ohio for its residents alone. If a quick Google search doesn’t turn up a card dedicated to your particular locale, check the National Association of Counties website; with any luck, your county already participates. But that’s just scratching the surface; there are plenty of programs that don’t care where you live.
Too good to be true?
The proliferation of cards – and of websites pushing them – can make a person suspicious: Who’s peddling this stuff? Can they honestly save you 85% on prescriptions? Are there really savings lying around to be picked up?
The short answer to this last question is “Yes.” There are discounts to be had, and one way to get them is with a prescription-drug card. Every drugstore (or drugstore chain) buys its stock from wholesalers, after negotiating a price with a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), or network. As Reid Rasmussen, owner of freshbenies.com, explains,
“The networks negotiate pricing on every drug at every pharmacy, so there are different prices everywhere. The pharmacies may arrive at different prices depending on their customer base. For instance, Pharmacy A might have a lot of soccer-mom customers, so they charge very little for Amoxicillin, but charge a lot for heart medication to recoup the money they lose on Amoxicillin. And Pharmacy B might have a lot of retired or elderly customers, so they charge more for Amoxicillin and less for heart medication.”
As for who’s behind the cards and how much they can save you, the answer – like so many answers – is: “it depends.” Anyone can sell you a card, and if you look online it seems like almost everyone’s trying to. But there are only a few dozen networks that all the cards feed into, and a card is only as good as the network behind it. According to Rasmussen, you’ll want a network with at least 60,000 members; that should cover all the big chains and most of the small pharmacies in the US. Somewhere on each website you’ll find a claim about how many pharmacies they’ve signed up.
You also want one which offers discounts that run at least 15-18% – that’s the industry average. AARP claims an average of 20%; some cards claim as high as 35%. But those averages are only a starting point; unless you’re thinking of issuing your own card, the only discounts that matter to you are the ones on the drugs you’re actually using.
Since most cards want no more information from you than your name, ZIP code and email address, there’s little risk in signing up for a couple of free ones and stopping by your pharmacy to check some prices. Of course, a locally issued card or one bearing the name of a group you’re already familiar with isn’t a bad way to go. If you have a card from your health plan, take it along and compare prices; you’re not required to use it if you can get a better deal with another card. And remember that no reputable card issuer is going to ask you for names and numbers that would allow them to impersonate you or drain your bank account. It has happened in the past, so be alert.
If you happen to be taking a very popular drug, you may be able to get by with no card at all, thanks to loss leaders offered by some of the large discount stores. Consumer Reports notes that “Wal-Mart and Target sell a 30-day supply of many generic drugs for about $4.00, and a 90-day supply for about $10.00 each. If the store with the lowest price is far away, ask a store near you to match the lower price. Smaller pharmacies will often do this if you live in the neighborhood.”
If there’s no automatic discount on the next drug you’re interested in, grab a card or two and do some comparison shopping. And keep looking. Each network – and even each store – may offer a different deal. It’s also quite likely that they price they quoted last year has changed significantly as new drugs, new generics, and other market factors have come into play. There’s money to be saved out there – and it’s your money.