Prescriptions are expensive, and it's unlikely that that will change anytime soon. A person suffering from a chronic illness pays an average of over $11,000 per year on prescriptions alone -- more than twice what she would have paid 10 years ago. Luckily, there are a few ways to cut your prescription costs down to size.
1. Look for generics
Once the patent runs out on a particular medication, other companies can release generic versions of that medication -- typically with a much lower price tag than the brand-name version of the same drug. Most doctors and pharmacists will tell you if your prescription has a generic option. But even if it doesn't, you may be able to substitute a similar medication that does. If your doctor prescribes a medication, the first question to ask is, "Is there a generic?" And if the answer is no, the second question is, "Is there another drug that will do the same thing and, if so, does it have a generic version?"
2. Use mail-order pharmacies
Mail order pharmacies will sell you a 90-day supply of your prescription at a much reduced cost compared to the price of three 30-day supplies of the same drug at your local pharmacy. However, the mail-order pharmacy industry is full of scammers and companies with lousy customer service (the last thing you need when ordering a drug your life depends on is a provider who regularly makes mistakes on orders).
You can confirm that a particular mail-order pharmacy is a legitimate provider and meets minimum standards of competence by looking for the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal on the company's website; this indicates that the pharmacy has completed a voluntary accreditation program.
If you prefer not to order your meds online, the next cheapest option is usually a pharmacy at a big box store. A Consumer Reports survey found that Costco and Sam's Club in particular quoted low out-of-pocket prices. You don't need to be a member to fill your prescriptions at these stores, but you may get a better deal if you are; Sam's Club will even fill some prescriptions for free for its members.
3. Shop around
That Consumer Reports survey also discovered that drug prices could vary hugely between one retailer and another, even in the same geographic area. In one case, a prescription costing $330 at one store only cost $15 at another in the same city.
So whether you use a local pharmacy or a mail order pharmacy, be sure to check the prices at several retailers for each prescription you fill; GoodRx.com can help with the comparison process. If you have a preferred pharmacy but their prices are not the lowest, tell the pharmacist that you can get the same drug for less elsewhere and then ask if they will match the lower price. A surprising number of pharmacies are happy to negotiate, but only if you ask.
4. Cut your meds in half (literally)
One of the odder aspects of prescription pricing is that if a drug is available in multiple strengths, the different versions of that drug often cost the same. Thus, a particular medication will be priced identically at 10 mg per pill and 20 mg per pill. Ask your doctor if your prescription is available at double the strength you're currently taking; if so, ask if you can buy the double strength version and then cut the pills in half. By taking a half pill of the double strength version, you'll be getting the same dosage as before -- but at half the cost. Note that it's important to get your doctor's OK before you try this, as some pills are dangerous to take when their protective coating is broken.
5. Consider not using insurance
Numerous prescription discount programs exist, many of them free, that can give you a steep price cut on your meds. The only problem is that these programs won't work in conjunction with your health insurance plan. However, if your insurance doesn't cover a particular drug or if that medication is at tier 3 or tier 4 on the insurance formulary, then buying it with a discount plan might be the cheaper alternative.
Also, some chain pharmacies offer such low prices on common generics that they are actually cheaper to buy without insurance, since the pharmacy's price may be lower than your insurance plan's co-pay. Keep in mind, though, that if you buy a prescription without using your health insurance, the purchase won't count toward your deductible or out-of-pocket maximum for the year.
If all of that fails...
If despite your best efforts you can't get an affordable price on your prescriptions, you may be able to get financial help from needymeds.org (they also have a drug discount program). If you have a Medicare Part D plan, try applying on ssa.gov/prescriptionhelp to see if you qualify for the Extra Help program. And some pharmaceutical companies have assistance programs for customers who struggle to pay for the company's drugs; needymeds.org can connect you with such programs, as can the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (pparx.org). After all, you've got nothing to lose by trying.