Q&A on How to Save at the Pharmacy

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Even with drug makers agreeing to discount medicine for seniors on Medicare, people are still struggling to pay bills at the pharmacy, especially for prescription meds. Jeff McCluskey, a Houston-based pharmacist for CVS, answered some questions about how to save money—or at least how to save some time—at the pharmacy.
Cheapskate: Are all generics really as good as brand name prescriptions? Why do some people insist on brand names then? I guess, if insurance is covering your prescription either way, what’s the incentive to go with a generic?

Jeff McCluskey: Generics offer the same active ingredients as brand name prescriptions, so they’re not only as effective—they’re also less expensive. Some people insist on brand names because they assume they are higher quality, but generics are safe, effective and approved by the FDA. The only difference is price.

Often times, insurance will not cover a brand name medication but will cover a generic version. A patient who insists on the brand name may have to pay the price difference. The incentive to go generic is simple: to save money. A $136 brand name monthly prescription could be as little as $10 in generic form—a savings of $1,500 a year.

CS: Is it sometimes cheaper to pay out of pocket for a prescription rather than using your insurance and paying the copay? If so, what are some common examples?

JM: Some retail pharmacy programs offer great discounts on generics. The CVS/pharmacy Health Savings Pass costs $10 annually and patients pay only $9.99 for a 90-day supply of over 400 generic prescriptions. Maintenance medications like diabetes drugs and blood pressure medications are common examples of prescriptions available in generic form. Every insurance plan is different, so it’s important to talk to your pharmacist about the best cost-savings options for you.

CS: Is there a particularly good time of day/week to go into the pharmacy and actually talk with the pharmacist? In my experience, you go in and there’s a line, and when you get to the front of the line, there are five people behind you—so it’s not exactly a situation in which I feel like there’s much time to chat. When will a customer feel less rushed?

JM: Generally speaking, Saturday afternoon, Sundays, late evenings and early mornings are less busy at the pharmacy counter. Mondays can be busy because doctors tend to call in prescription refill authorizations to be filled after the weekend. Wednesdays and Thursdays are typically the slower days of the week. Most people want to pick up their medications on the way to or from work, so try to avoid “rush hour.” Regardless of whether anyone is waiting behind you, you should always feel free to ask your pharmacist about your medications. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your questions in the consultation area, you can also call your pharmacist.

CS: How should a person best prepare for getting a prescription filled? What mistakes do a lot of people make, in terms of having their insurance lined up or whatnot, so that having the prescription filled takes lots of time, or doesn’t happen at all and they have to come back?

JM: Carry all current insurance cards with you at all times. Unfortunately, medical cards and prescription cards may look similar or share the same information, so bring them all, just in case. A common mistake people make is to keep old insurance cards in their wallet. When they get to the pharmacy, they don’t know which insurance plan is their most current plan, and it ends up causing confusion. If your insurance card has expired, cut it up and throw it away, just like an old credit card. We verify all the information the pharmacy needs up front, so being patient at drop off helps avoid delay at pick up.

Another mistake some people make is filling their prescriptions at multiple pharmacies. This can put your health at risk, because your pharmacist may not have a full view of your medication profile in order to check for dangerous interactions. Take the time to review your full list of medications—including over the counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal remedies—with your pharmacist. This way they can check for generic alternatives, duplicate therapies and dangerous drug interactions.

CS: What’s the most cost-effective pain killer for, say, your everyday headache? Advil, Motrin, Tylenol?

JM: These are all good options, but some individuals may find one more effective than another. So see what works best for you—just not at the same time. And as with any other prescription or over-the-counter medication, generic or store-brand medications are just as safe and effective. For people who take pain relief medication regularly, consider buying in bulk to save money. Just don’t buy more than you can use before the expiration date.