Here are more ideas for holding down prescription costs:

  • Ask for samples. Doctors often have prescription-drug samples provided by pharmaceutical companies. Your doctor may be able to give you a free short-term supply of a new prescription.
  • Buy online. Sure, it's good to have a relationship with a local pharmacist, but if you just need to refill a maintenance medication, you may be able to save significantly by buying online. Even the online versions of local pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens sometimes have lower prices than their own local stores — and you can have the medicine shipped directly to you or pick it up at your nearby pharmacy. Store pick-up may be important to customers who want to be sure a local pharmacist is aware of their full medication regimen.
  • Buy in bulk. If you take certain medications routinely, find out if you can get a better deal by buying a 90-day supply rather than a 30-day supply. The cost savings (if any) aren't likely to be huge, but every little bit helps.
  • Join a loyalty program: Like grocery stores and booksellers, many pharmacies are adopting loyalty-card programs that offer discounts for cardholders. The goal of the pharmacies, of course, is to keep you coming back rather than take your business elsewhere.

Get prescription assistance: Many drug companies participate in assistance programs that provide medications at low-cost or no-cost to people without health insurance or drug coverage. You can learn more at RxAssist.org, pparx.org, and NeedyMeds.org. Also, some state and local governments, as well as certain charities, offer prescription-discount cards to people with low incomes.

BUYING OUTSIDE THE U.S.?

Many brand-name prescription drugs cost less outside the U.S. because of government-enforced price controls in other nations. But strictly speaking, importing medicines from other countries is illegal, although the U.S. Customs Service is lax about enforcing the law.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes a slight exception to the no-importation law for prescription purchases in Canada. To be within the law, such transactions must be made in person (i.e., not online), and the buyer must have a valid U.S. and Canadian prescription. In practice, this means only U.S. residents who live near the border and have the requisite double prescriptions will find buying medicine in Canada convenient and legal.

Pressure to change the drug importation law — at least in the case of prescription-drug purchases from Canada — appears to be increasing. The governments of several U.S. northern-border states (New Hampshire, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin) have effectively defied the federal law by encouraging their state employees to buy medications from Canadian websites, according to Consumer Reports. In 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have allowed U.S. residents to make purchases from Canadian online pharmacies, but the measure never received final approval. 

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