Everyone has seen prescription discount cards. They are all over the internet. They appear in the mailbox time and time again. Many come from odd named companies but some come from very familiar names like the AARP®. But are they the real deal or a scam?
Prescription discount cards
♦ Discount cards are not insurance.
♦ They cannot be used in combination with insurance.
Not everyone will need a discount card. Hundreds of generic medications are available for $4 or even free without insurance and without a discount card.
If you have insurance, your copay might be the best price. If your insurance requires a large copay, separate prescription deductible or does not include your drug in their formulary then a discount card or online pharmacy may be the a better option for you.
Jump ahead to GoodRx
Big savings or not?
Discount cards all promise to save lots of money on prescription drugs, for free. Promises range from 10% to even 90% on prescription drugs.
Is this true? A huge discount, no. But there is a chance you might hit on a little discount. More like 10 to 20 percent if you are lucky. The 70% deals are very very rare.
• Consumer Reports a few years back tried to figure out if this discount card stuff was a scam or not. They even sent people around to try to shop drugs with several well-known discount cards. The end of the story … it was tough to even get a pharmacy to quote a price using these cards and those pharmacies that did came back with little savings at all.
♦ Some cards are not a scam.
They are fishy and many smell a lot like rotten fish. Even so, there is a chance consumers without prescription drug coverage can save some money using drug discount cards, especially the free ones. But figuring out which cards save the most money is really tough.
• Don’t run to your local pharmacy with a handful of cards and try to do price checks. Your pharmacy will not welcome you. For the pharmacy staff, it can be more time-consuming and costly for the pharmacy to obtain the prices through a discount card than insurance cards.
Understand, most pharmacies are charged a small fee by the Pharmacy Benefits Manager (PBM) for looking up a price. If you don’t buy they still get stuck with the fee. Don’t expect smiling faces if you are just price comparing.
• If you buy, the pharmacy will be happy. But the transaction will not be as smooth for them as an insurance card. Also, they are most likely going to get charged a processing fee from the PBM. This is a charge they may not always be able to roll into your cost.
The pharmacy will lose money in a sense. If you had paid cash instead of using a discount card they would have made more profit for their store. The loss of profits is a big reason discount cards are not welcomed the same way as insurance cards.
♦ People on Medicare will find that they will not be able to use most discount cards. Most cards have a disclaimer written in the tiniest of letters stating this. Others, surprise the consumer when they try to use them.
• GoodRx says some of their discount coupons may work for people with Medicare. They are certainly worth checking out, but be sure to go online and generate a coupon for the specific pharmacy you plan to use. These coupons generally save more than their discount card.
Manufacturer's coupons and savings cards
Brand-name drugs can often be purchased at a better price by using a manufacturer’s coupon or saving card than with a discount card. Many manufacturers are offering special savings programs for people with financial needs as a form of public relations.
Other manufacturers offer savings cards to bring their prices down so that their brand can continue to compete with a newly released generic version.
• AstraZeneca offers a savings card for their brand-name cholesterol medicine called Crestor.
With the savings card a 30-day supply can cost as low as $3.
The card can be used up to 12 times, so it is possible to get a year’s supply of Crestor for only $36.
This is actually cheaper than most insurance plans’ copay for the generic version. The card can be used by anyone without insurance or even by people with insurance.
• Unfortunately, many of these programs exclude people receiving government insurance like Medicare and Medicaid.
Protect your privacy
There is very little you can do to prevent discount card promoters from collecting information on you. Most are marketing companies for large Pharmacy Benefits Management (PBM) companies.
♦ The PBM collects your information during the process of filling a prescription. The PBM often times will be sharing your information with the marketing companies. It helps the marketing company to better promote the discount cards.
GoodRx is good example of this business model. They appear to work with several PBMs. GoodRx refers to this shared information in their privacy section. They state that they will "de-identify" the information they receive by removing your name and date of birth.
♦ Any discount card company collecting personal information will almost certainly try to turn that information into revenue by selling it to third parties if not now then sometime in the future.
Third parties you hope will only be filling your mailbox with trash not doing something malicious with the information.
Many discount cards have websites where you can look up the price of a drug. If this option is available you should try checking prices there first.
This will give you a rough idea of which local pharmacy may be the cheapest. Keep in mind the prices online seldom matches the price at the pharmacy.
It may be close but often times it is just a rough estimate. Other times it is just a deception to get you to use their card.
GoodRx is an online site that offers information on prescription drugs. They promote their own discount card and coupons.
They are really just a marketing company for several Pharmacy Benefits Management (PBM) companies. The PBMs are the ones that negotiate drug discounts with the pharmacies.
The GoodRx site appears to generate different discounts based upon different PBMs. This gives you more choices in one place. It is unlikely that you will actually be able to get the lowest prices they show.
As with all marketing companies, GoodRx will make money referring customers to PBMs and PBMs will in-turn make money bringing customers into the pharmacies. The pharmacies have to give up profits to make this business model run.
If you wish to purchase online GoodRx will direct you to a company called HealthWarehouse. HealthWarehouse has quite a few good reviews and only a few bad ones.
• If you are on a maintenance type drug, something that you know will not be changed soon, then ordering mail order prescriptions can save a significant amount of money.
♦ GoodRx is a mixed story. There are a lot of people who love the discounts they are getting but there are also a lot of people complaining that merchants are refusing to accept their discount cards. Complaints about unresponsive customer service are quite common. We decided to give GoodRx a test.
We ran pricing for Crestor generic (Rosuvastatin) at GoodRx.
• They suggested prices for a number of places using their discount coupon.
A 30-day supply of 5 mg Rosuvastatin could be purchased online for $15.90, Kroger for $17.20 and Walgreens for $29.20. We decided to go local.
We printed out discount coupons for both Kroger and Walgreens. They have very different identification information. Probably using different PBMs.
We stopped by Walgreens, where our test customer's prescription is, they accepted the discount coupon no questions asked. But they could not give a price unless they actually filled the prescription. The pharmacist advised that "the price seldom comes out as low as the card suggests."
We headed to our local Kroger to see if they too would accept the coupon and if they would come close to price the card said.
Wow ... a 30-day supply ended up costing …$17.20 ...it really worked !
The same prescription would have cost our test customer $40 if he had used his BlueCross BlueShield insurance.
So, in this case he paid cash and saved money. Opinion – it’s worth giving GoodRx a try if you don't mind changing pharmacies.
• We decided to give this a shot for a Medicare Advantage friend.
We took a coupon over to Walgreens for a very expensive cough medicine, something not covered by his insurance.
It came back at less than half the regular price. He is still coughing but he is much happier.
GoodRx Gold - this is a membership program that GoodRx is now promoting.
GoodRx Gold claims to offer deeper discounts than the regular (free) GoodRx website. The membership is $5.99 / month for individuals and $9.99 / month for the family plan. The family plan covers up to 6 members on one account which can include family and friends.
Is it worth it? $9.99 / month is pretty steep unless you have a large family all taking prescription drugs every month.
If you are using more expensive drugs than you may see a benefit over free coupons. But we could not see a significant savings when comparing lower cost generics. At least, not enough to justify paying a fee every month.
It is difficult to justify paying money for a discount card or program.
AAA® and AARP® both offer their members a free prescription discount card. A Consumer World study did not find significant savings with either AAA® or AARP®’s programs when they compared pricing for a common cholesterol lowing drug.
If you are already a member of either organization it is worth seeing if you can save money on your particular medication.
If you are not a member you would be better off trying some of the free discount cards first.
Some drugstore chains like Walgreens have a prescription savings program for around $20 to $35 per year. If you don’t have insurance or your insurance will not cover your prescription then this type of program may save you money over the course of year.
Since it is the pharmacy’s program the staff will be glad to give you an estimate for your prescription with and without enrolling in this discount program.
• We tested this program using a prescription skin medication not covered by insurance. We received about a 40% savings, enough to recover the membership fee with the first month supply.
You need to add up your savings to understand if this program will work for you. You may find the savings would take months to recoup the membership fee.
• You also need to read the rules carefully before entering into these types of plans because most do not work if you are over 65 and on Medicare.
Many common generic drugs cost around $4 for a 30-day supply at Costco, Sam’s, Kmart, Target, Walmart, and many larger supermarket chains.
Costco is a membership club, Costco's pharmacies are open to non-members where required by state law. Depending upon the state you live in you won’t need to pay a membership fee to use their pharmacy.
Sam’s is a membership club but you do not have to be a member to buy prescription medications. Sam's Club pharmacy claims to offer more than 200 medications for just $4. Walmart and Sam’s are the same company so if it is more convenient stop by Walmart and see if your medication is $4.
Kroger has a program where they offer a 30-day supply of many generics for $4.
Depending upon where you live you may be able consider supermarket chains: Meijer, Giant Eagle, Price Chopper and Stop & Shop.
Publix does not promote $4 drugs, instead it offers some medications free. They tend to be generics of the most commonly prescribed drugs for treatment of infections, diabetes, and blood pressure. It is pretty difficult to beat free.
There is a thriving business around prescription discount cards. Some come from pharmaceutical companies promoting their products, some come from nonprofits, some from county governments trying to help their citizens but the vast majority come from companies trying to cash in on a need.
If your prescriptions are costing too much, then discount cards are worth the time and effort to try. Finding a good one may be a challenge.
♦ Keep your expectations realistic – 70% savings are rare, 90% does not happen.
Brand-name drug - go to the manufacturer’s website and look for a saving card or program and take advantage of that as long as you can.
Generics - don’t forget the $4 deals.
Free - it's hard to beat free. Be sure to check out Publix.