How to Spend Less at the Pharmacy

One mom’s frustration with high prices led her to create an online savings tool that can cut drug costs in half.

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When Emily Kaminski needed an antibiotic to treat an infection a couple of years ago, she couldn’t believe the $55 price tag. “I did some investigating, and found it at another place for $40, and another for $18,” says the 34-year-old stay-at-home mom, a former junior-high teacher. She was so surprised at the price differences at various local pharmacies that she decided to launch a website to help other consumers shop around more easily. The site, frugalpharmacies.com, now lets users search for the best price for more than hundreds of the most common drugs in a matter of seconds; she plans to continue building the site with the help of information gathered by users.

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“Consumers just don’t have any information to make an informed decision about what they’re doing,” says Kaminski of prescription drug prices. Not only does insurance coverage vary greatly, but pharmacy prices themselves do as well. She found that many drugs varied not just by $5 and $10, but by $50 or more. She helped one of her friends lower her monthly bill for bipolar medication to $66 from $350.

Kaminski compares prices customers pay if they have no insurance, which provides an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s most useful for people with no insurance or with insurance that comes with high deductibles, although Kaminski says people with other types of insurance can also glean information about where they will face higher co-pays. “The people who are least able to pay end up paying the highest prices because they don’t have any way to negotiate [the way health insurers do],” says Kaminski. “I don’t have a problem with medication costing a certain amount, but I think it’s fair to say this medication costs $10 here and $50 here, and to direct people to the one that’s cheaper. If it’s the same drug, that’s good information,” she adds. (See How to Fight Health Insurance Denials.)

Eventually, Kaminski, who’s based in Atlanta, hopes to turn her website into a self-sustaining business. She doesn’t currently make any money off the site, but spends up to 20 hours a week on it, as she gathers and organizes the data. She’s collected information on drug prices in major cities including Atlanta, New York, and Boston, and continues to expand her coverage. She also hired a freelancer to create the website and logo design. As she builds traffic, she’ll look into other possibilities for growth, such as creating a mobile app or perhaps featuring advertising or a “donate” button.

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Consumers looking to save on pharmaceuticals can also consider these strategies:

Go generic: Consumers can talk with their doctors about generic versions of their prescriptions as well as other, better-value options.

Buy in bulk: Sometimes doctors can prescribe larger quantities of drugs at once, which can lead to discounts and lower co-pays.

Shop on safe and legal Internet sites. Online pharmacies can be a viable option, but consumers should be careful that they are vetted and safe.

Buy via the mail. Insurance companies sometimes offer better deals to customers when they purchase prescriptions through the mail instead of a bricks-and-mortar pharmacy.

Reduce total number of prescriptions. At least once a year, consumers can talk to their doctors about recurring prescriptions and see if they are still necessary.

As Kaminski notes, health, not money, is the most important factor when it comes to prescription drugs, but sometimes consumers don’t have to choose.

Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.