Where to Find Free or Low-Cost Prescription Drugs

Programs May Reduce Your Monthly Drug Expenses

pharmacist handing out a prescription
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One way to reduce your monthly drug costs is to find pharmacies that offer them either free of charge or at a very low price. While this may sound too good to be true, there are drugstores (usually larger retail chains) that aim to build customer loyalty by reducing the retail price of their high-volume prescription medications. These include antibiotics, diabetes drugs, prenatal vitamins, and hundreds of popular generic medications.

How the Programs Work

Some of the retailers that offer free or low-cost prescription drugs require an annual membership fee. Because these regional or national mega-chains operate in such large volumes, they are willing to slash prices well below the copay costs of many insurance plans, including Medicare.

The discounts, while attractive, are by no means altruistic. Rather than submitting a drug claim to your insurer, for which they would receive a set reimbursement, a drugstore may slash the retail price to as little as $4 for certain high-volume generic drugs. Even if they end up losing on the transaction, they can usually make up the difference (and then some) by capturing the rest of your prescription drug business.

So robust is the model that some retailers will even pay you to transfer a prescription from your current pharmacy to theirs.

It is not dissimilar to patient assistance programs (PAPs) run by drug manufacturers. For this model, the manufacturer will slash the price of an expensive (usually chronic) drug in exchange for hefty tax breaks from the federal government. It's a "win-win" solution that mainly benefits the drug manufacturer by staving off competition and allowing it to maintain high prices for the rest of their non-PAP customers.

Membership Considerations

What is tricky about some of these free and low-cost programs is that the drug formularies and tier pricing can frequently change, meaning that a drug may be discounted one month but not the next. Others only offer discounts for specific periods or require a prescription for even an over-the-counter medication.

This is not to suggest the programs aren't beneficial to the right customer. This is especially true if you're on a fixed income, the discounts are ongoing, and your overall savings justify the membership fee.

What all of this means is that you need to be clear about how the program works and what essential medications you can expect to be covered consistently. It is important to ask how often the drug formulary is changed and what your options are if your drug is affected. (You should never change drugs based on price without first consulting your doctor.)

It also helps to look for programs that offer 90-day supplies and/or home delivery, both of which can deliver ever deeper savings.

Insurance Considerations

Beyond cash savings, it is important to note that, as part of your membership agreement, you will agree to forego submission of a drug claim to your insurance company.

While this may not seem like a big deal, it can be if you don't understand the terms of your policy or the implications of side-stepping the claims process. In some cases, you may find that you've gotten a deal on a statin that retails for $36 while paying for a costlier drug that your insurer is offering free. These include many prescription drugs classified as Essential Health Benefits (EHBs) under the Affordable Care Act.

Moreover, if you are being managed for a chronic condition such as diabetes or heart disease, you need to consider if and how this may affect your overall care. Claims not submitted for insurance adjudication may result in incomplete pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) data and adherence reporting. What this means is that your insurer may be blind to the medications you're on and whether you have been changed or are adhering to treatment.

While this wouldn't necessarily affect your benefits, it may complicate drug approvals in the future. Depending on the disease, certain drugs are only approved after another drug has failed or caused intolerable side effects. If PMB data is missing, it may require you to reconstruct your prescription records to motivate for treatment.

Discount Drug Programs

Many pharmacies today offer a selection of discounted or free medications as a matter of routine. Some are stand-alone pharmacies, while others operate within larger supermarkets or discount stores.

Here are 12 national or regional programs you should know about:

  • Costco (nationwide) offers some of the lowest prescription drug prices, although they can vary considerably by region. While a Costco membership is required ($60 for a basic membership), there is no additional charge for their prescription discount program.
  • Giant Eagle Supermarkets (Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia) offers a wide range of generic drugs at $4 or $10 per prescription, as well as a 90-day supply for qualified drugs. No enrollment is necessary.
  • Krogers (nationwide) has a long list of low-cost generic drugs offered on an ongoing basis. Their Easy Drug Card program is free and has no expiration date.
  • Market Street Pharmacies and Amigos United Supermarkets (Texas) offer a number of prescription drugs at $4 per month and will pay you up to $75 to transfer a prescription. Their MyRxClub membership has an annual fee of $11.99.
  • Meijer Stores (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio) operate a free prescription program for low-cost antibiotics, prenatal vitamins, and diabetes medications. The program doesn't require enrollment but is subject to quantity limitations.
  • Price Chopper (New York and New England) offers a variety of prescriptions at $10 for a 90-day supply, as well as several free diabetes medications and supplies. The savings are available through their free RXAdvantEdge program.
  • Publix Supermarkets (southeastern states) offer a number of free antibiotics, diabetes, and blood pressure medications through their Free Medication Program. Antibiotics are offered in a 14-day supply.
  • Reasor's Foods (Oklahoma) offer free antibiotics and vitamins when prescribed by a doctor. Children are eligible to receive free vitamins until the age of seven. Antibiotics are offered in a 10-day supply. No membership is required.
  • Schnuck's Pharmacies (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin) offer a variety of generic drugs for $4 for a 30-day supply. They also offer several $9 oral breast cancer medications and $2 oral diabetes drugs. No enrollment is required.
  • ShopRite Stores (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland) offer several diabetes medications as well as children's and prenatal vitamins free of charge. They also boast a long list of 30- and 90-day generics for $4 and $10. No membership is required.
  • Stater Bros. (southern California) offers 30- and 90-day supplies of many generics for $4 and $10. They even offer a program that allows you to get a selection of popular pet medications for $4 each.
  • Walmart and Sam's Club (nationwide) offers a variety of $4 generic drugs, although the cost may be higher in certain states. While Sam's Club requires an annual $45 membership fee, their discount prescription program is free and there is no charge your first five generic prescription drugs.
  • Wegmans (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) offers a long list of $4 and $10 generics, as well as discounted pet medications. No membership is required.

A Word From Verywell

If programs and offerings such as these still leave you unable to afford your medication, you may want to consider exploring options such as prescription discount cards, coupons, aforementioned PAPs, or other cost-saving strategies.

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