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Prescription drug prices are soaring – here's how to save

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We all know healthcare costs are soaring but nowhere is this troubling trend more apparent than in the rising cost of prescription drugs.

Americans paid 10.9% more for brand-name and generic medications in 2014 compared to 2013, according to Truveris, a prescription drug pricing and benefits analytics firm.

Unsurprisingly, brand-name drugs saw the highest bump, up nearly 15% last year, but they weren’t entirely to blame for the overall surge in drug prices.  

Generic drugs cost 5% more in 2014 than the year before, a trend experts have blamed on decreased competition in the generic drug manufacturing business, coupled with new quality control initiatives launched by the Food and Drug Administration. Generic drug companies were already operating on such “razor thin profit margins” that many couldn’t handle the cost of complying with the FDA’s new rules, says Bryan Birch, CEO of Truveris. Some companies merged, while others shut down altogether. Less competition opened the door for higher prices.

“I think it was an unintended consequence of a very much-needed change [in generic drug regulation],” Birch says. “[Generic drug makers] saw this as a chance to consolidate and have only a few manufacturers per drug, which gave them an ability to increase prices.”

As is often the case, some types of medications were more likely to see price hikes than others. According to the Truveris study, across all types of drugs (generic and brand name), those used to treat muscle pain and stiffness saw the steepest increases, rising 29.8% in 2014, followed by medications for inflammation (26.6%); Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (23.0%); and heart disease (19.4%).

When looking only at generic drug price differences, Truveris found even higher increases for some common medical conditions. The average cost of generic drugs used to treat muscle pain and stiffness rose 31.9% year over year, followed by drugs to treat inflammation (31.7%); heart disease (23.7%); acne (18.1%); and infections (11.8%).

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Commonly prescribed Nicardipine HCL, a generic medication used to treat high blood pressure, more than tripled in price in 2014, from $7.50 for a 30-day supply to $33, according to Truveris. The same was true of generic pain reliever Acetaminophen-Butalbital, which increased from $4.50 for a 30-day supply to $15.

Truveris’ findings echo an October U.S. Congressional study of generic drug price inflation, in which the Healthcare Supply Chain Association found that price tags on 10 commonly-used drugs had soared by 300%, and in one case 8,281% over a six-month period. Those drugs included medications like the antibiotic Doxycycline Hyclate, whose market price went from $20 for 100 tablets to a whopping $1,849, and Isuprel, a drug commonly used to prevent heart attacks, which ballooned from $916 to $4,489 for a box of 25 pills.

Considering the fact that generics constitute about 80% of all prescribed medications in the U.S., it’s likely consumers (and their wallets) have noticed a difference. Uninsured patients often get stuck paying the sticker price for the drugs they need and even those who have insurance may find that their insurer has started charging higher copays for drugs that have sharply increased in price.

“Before we used to go the drugstore and pay a $10 copay for a generic drug,” Birch says. “But a lot of health plan designs are changing and some of these drugs are increasing at such a high rate that we’re no longer protected by copays.”

One of the potential consequences of rising drug prices is that some consumers may simply choose not to fulfill their prescriptions, an issue members of Congress brought up in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services in October.

They have at least some reason to worry. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that 24% of prescriptions for new medications were not filled within six months, a trend most commonly found among low-income patients.

“The bottom line is that everyday people are feeling the pain of rising prices,” says Fisayo Ositelu, health expert at Nerdwallet.com. But it’s not entirely out of your hands.

Here are a few tips to save at the pharmacy:

Generics are still the cheapest option out there. True, generic drug prices are going up, but they’re still the best deal out there, often costing 80% less than brand-name options. Most doctors will default to generic prescriptions if they are available, but it never hurts to ask just to make sure you’re not missing out.

Insurance isn’t always the best way to save. “Sometimes people have misconceptions about generic versus brand-name drugs, but for most part they are bio-equivalent, which means they have the same active ingredients,” says Ositelu. If you’re using insurance and pay a copay of $10 or $20 every time you fill a prescription, you could be paying more than someone who walks in and pays the cash rate. When you have a prescription, call around to several pharmacies to get quotes for paying in cash.

Comparison shop before you buy. If your doctor prescribes a brand-name drug and there is no generic alternative, ask her to suggest a few other options that can also work. You can call your insurance company before filling your prescription to see if one is more affordable than the others. Ositelu recommends shopping around on sites like GoodRX.com and RXrevu.com, which let you put in your ZIP code and see drug prices at your local retailers.

Buy in bulk. For a chronic condition that require long-term medication, buy in bulk. Drugstores, retailers and even your local supermarket might offer discounts on 60- or 90-day prescriptions. If you’re buying drugs online, however, make sure the website you’re on is VIPPS-certified, which means they’re in compliance with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.  

Ask for coupons. Unfortunately, you won’t find prescription medication coupon fliers in your Sunday newspaper, but you can always ask your doctor’s office if they have any (it’s in their best interest to help you afford the medical care you need). If you can’t find coupons through your doctor, look for other services that offer medication discounts, like AARP, which gives members discounts they can use on FDA-approved medications that aren’t covered by Medicare Part D. The Social Security Administration also has a program called Extra Help, which benefits low-income seniors who can’t afford their prescriptions.

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