Prescription medications cost consumers (and the health-care industry) billions of dollars each year. In 2010, more than 3.7 billion prescriptions were filled in the United States with retail sales totaling more than $220 billion. Approximately 70 percent of the prescriptions filled each day are for those older than 65. These costs place an especially large financial burden on the elderly; many of whom are on fixed incomes. Regardless of age or insurance coverage, most consumers look for advice from their physician or local pharmacist on how to save money on their medications.

"Asking for a generic equivalent is probably the easiest way to save money on your prescriptions," said Mike Raflowitz, owner of Grieb's Pharmacy in Darien. "Patients should talk with their doctors to consider generics as a less expensive option."

Mike also recommends patients check the pharmaceutical websites to see if they have programs that provide coupons or a savings program.

Ways to save money:

Generic Prescription Programs

Many pharmacies (e.g. Walmart and Costco) offer discounted drug programs for generic medications. Often, a 30-day supply can cost as little as $4 or a 90-day supply can cost $10.

Pharmaceutical Coupons

Many drug companies offer "savings cards" which help lower the costs of many brand medications for their patients. Many of these coupons can be obtained at your doctor's office or may be found by visiting the medication website. For example, Lipitor (a popular cholesterol medication) is offering this medication for $4 a month with a discount card. These savings may total hundreds of dollars each year.

Canadian (Foreign) Drug Stores

More Americans are buying their prescription medications through vendors who are overseas or from Canada. Although it is actually illegal to import medications into the United States, many consumers are willing to take the risk. Unfortunately, these medications are not regulated by the FDA and thus run the risk of being counterfeit. Consumers must therefore use caution when buying any foreign medications online.

Splitting Medications

Pill splitting is a simple way to save money. Many times, different doses of medications are priced the same. For example, someone taking 10 mg of a medicine can receive 20 mg tablets (or double the supply) for the same cost. Be careful, however. Not all medications can be cut in half. Many time-release medications are not designed to be cut. Discuss whether this is an option with your doctor or pharmacist.

Patient Assistance Programs

These are generally offered by pharmaceutical companies to offer low-cost or free medications for those who meet certain income requirements. A web search or speaking with your doctor can guide you on how to apply for these benefits.

Mail Order

Frequently, insurance companies will discount medications if they are requested in higher quantities through their preferred mail order carrier. You can call your insurance company to ask if they participate in such a program.

Low Tier Drugs

Most insurance companies will charge different prices for similar medications. Their "preferred" brand will be in a lower tier category and will therefore have lower co-pay. You can discuss with your doctor if it is appropriate to change your medication to a less expensive tier.

Prescription Savings Club

Some pharmacies offer saving cards for discounted products including medications, medical supplies and immunizations. For example, Walgreens Pharmacy offers an individual saving club card for $20 ($35 for families) which allows patients to purchase both prescription and non-prescription medications at significant discounts.

Free Antibiotics

Stores like ShopRite are offering "free" antibiotics to customers with a prescription from their physician. Not all antibiotics are included in the program, so you will need to discuss if one of these free medications is appropriate for your illness.

Free Samples

Ask your doctor to help supplement your medications with samples. Physicians receive these drugs directly from the pharmaceutical companies to assist patients with either starting a new medication or help with defraying the costs for those who cannot afford them. Even a one week supply per month can help save 25 percent off the yearly costs of the drug.

Medications play a crucial role in health and well-being. Unfortunately, their effect on the pocketbook can often create a serious problem for the consumer who often cannot afford the treatment. With some time and effort, patients can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year -- money that can be crucial for many other aspects of our lives.

Dr. Michael Schwartz is board certified in internal medicine with a private practice in Darien. For comments or questions, visit his web site at www.drmichaelbschwartz.com.

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