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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Highlight on Drugs Highlight on Drugs

Seven Ways To Get the Most From Your Health Care Dollar

March 19, 2014

By Howard LeWine M.D.

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Drug therapy is a significant part of health care costs for all of us. Even if you have health insurance, the costs of co-pays can add up quickly.

While you need to rely on your doctor to choose the best drug therapies for you, you should play an active role in the decision-making process.

Because there are so many different ways in which drug costs impact us, it is difficult to provide guidance that will allow all people to save money in all circumstances. But some general recommendations can be made:

  1. Ask your doctor about the choices available. Most symptoms and diseases have many different treatment options. Common diseases and conditions have more choices available than less common ones.
  2. Ask your doctor if a generic version of a drug you need is available. In general, generic drugs work just as well as brand-name drugs. The Food and Drug Administration has a strict set of rules that drug producers must live by. These same rules for quality apply to the brand-name maker and generic maker of prescription drugs. The difference in price can be very large and there is no difference in how well they work.
  3. If you are taking prescription drugs for a chronic condition such as high blood pressure, think about getting a three-month supply at a time and consider using a mail-order pharmacy. Many prescription health benefits plans offer lower copayments; many online pharmacies offer discounts for a three-month supply. When you have the option to choose your own mail-order pharmacy, especially an Internet-based pharmacy, look for a VIPPS seal of approval.
  4. Pill splitting is sometimes a good way to lower your costs. Ask the pharmacist about tablet strength. Getting a tablet in twice the dose and cutting it in half sometimes can lower your cost by as much as one-half. Not all tablets can be split. A good rule of thumb is to look for a scoring on the tablet.
  5. Most health insurance plans have a preferred list of drugs. Many will penalize the consumer by requiring a larger copayment for nonpreferred drugs or by not covering the drug at all. Ask your health care professional to prescribe drugs that are on the preferred list.
  6. Ask your pharmacist about less expensive drug options. He or she is in the best position to know which drugs can save you money. Then ask your doctor if switching to a less expensive alternative will work as well for you.
  7. Talk to your doctor not only about the potential risks and benefits of your medications, but also about price. All other things being equal, you may decide that one medicine is better than another at least in part because of its cost.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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