Buying Your Drugs Through the Mail

Positives and Negatives of Mail Order Drugs

You can use mail-order drug services to have your prescription drugs delivered to your home. You skip the line and inconvenience of visiting a pharmacy. There are both benefits and drawbacks to receiving drugs by mail order, but this option has been growing in popularity for years. According to a 2020 analysis, there were 13.5 million American adults receiving prescriptions via mail order in 1996, and that had grown to nearly 26 million by 2018.

Close-up of a hand on a computer mouse next to prescription drug bottles
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Benefits of Mail Order Drugs

  • Convenience: You can get a 90-day supply of each of your medications delivered to your home. Often, you get a 30-day supply at your walk-in pharmacy.
  • You may save money: Your health plan may have lower copayments for prescription medications that you obtain through mail-order, rather than through a regular retail pharmacy.
  • You can easily order refills: If your prescription is current, most mail-order pharmacies allow you to order refills online, by mail, or by phone. Plus, you can do it at any time of the day or night, without having to worry about whether your neighborhood pharmacy is open.
  • No face-to-face contact: As noted below, this can be a drawback too. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to have prescriptions delivered to your home has helped many people to remain compliant with their medications while also remaining safe from the virus. And some people simply prefer less face-to-face contact, making mail-order prescriptions a more comfortable option.
  • Special customer services: Some mail-order pharmacies provide special services, including the ability to:
  • Register for online refill reminders so you'll know when it's time to reorder your medications. You can receive an email reminder or an automated telephone reminder.
  • Speak directly with a pharmacist to answer your medication questions.
  • Check the status of your order online or by phone.
  • View your prescription history.
  • Access consumer education information about your medication and your health condition. 

Downside of Mail Order Drugs

  • Safety issues: If you buy medications through the mail from online drugstores that are not reputable, you are at risk of getting the wrong medication or counterfeit medication.
  • Mail delivery issues: Although safe and efficient, packages handled by the U.S. Postal Service can get lost or damaged. Additionally, there is a small danger of your package being stolen from a rural or suburban roadside mailbox.
  • Mail-order delivery can be slow: When you use a mail-order pharmacy, it may take as long as two weeks to receive your medication shipment. This may be OK if you plan ahead. If you wait until you are almost out of medications before you order a refill, however, you will need to pay for overnight or one-day shipping, which can be expensive.
  • No face-to-face contact with your pharmacist: One of your most valuable health resources in your community is your pharmacist. If you take several medications and use over-the-counter drugs, your pharmacist can advise you about interactions and side effects.

How to Find a Mail-Order Pharmacy

If have a health plan with drug coverage, you most likely have the opportunity to order your medications through the mail. Most large health plans work with companies known as pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs), which administer the drug benefit for the health plan (CVS Caremark, Express Scripts, and OptumRx are the three largest BPMs; combined, they have nearly 80% of the U.S. prescription benefits market). These companies can buy medications in large quantities directly from the drug companies and they are able to offer you discounts on medications that you order through the mail.

Large drugstore chains, such as Walgreens and Wal-Mart, also offer services that allow you to order medications through the mail. You have the option to pick them up at a pharmacy or to have them mailed to your home. Moreover, large online drugstores may provide a discounted 90-day supply of medications similar to the chains and the PBMs. There are different options for you to get mail-order prescription medications, depending on your health plan and financial situation.

If You Have Health Insurance

If you have drug coverage as part of your health plan, check your benefit booklet and your health plan’s website to see if your health plan uses a PBM. Since your medication is being paid for by your health insurance, you are responsible only for the copayment, coinsurance, or deductible that your health plan imposes (depending on the plan and how much you've spent out-of-pocket so far in the year, you might be responsible for the full cost, although it will be the cost that the health plan has negotiated as opposed to the retail price).

If you are ordering a brand name prescription drug, your best option to save money is most likely a 90-day supply from your health plan’s PBM.

For example, your copay for Diovan (valsartan), a medication used to treat high blood pressure, might be $25 for a 30-day supply at your local pharmacy and $50 for a 90-day supply from your health plan’s PBM, a savings of $25.

If you are taking a generic medication, such as simvastatin (brand name Zocor), which is used to treat high cholesterol, though, your health plan’s PBM may charge $15 for a 90-day supply, while your local Wal-Mart pharmacy or supermarket pharmacy may charge only $10 for a 90-day supply.

If You Have Medicare Part D

Most Medicare Part D drug plans offer mail-order prescriptions. This works the same as regular health insurance, with a smaller copayment if you order a 90-day supply of your medication from the plan’s PBM.

When you reach the coverage gap or donut hole, though, you may find that your out-of-pocket costs change, depending on how your plan is designed (the donut hole technically closed as of 2020, but that just means that out-of-pocket costs cannot exceed 25% of the cost of the drug while a person is in the donut hole; this can still be different from the costs that a person pays prior to entering the donut hole). You can continue to purchase a 90-day supply through your Part D plan after you're in the donut hole, but you may be able to save money by comparison shopping. Your options include:

If You Don't Have Health Insurance

If you do not have health insurance with drug coverage, there are several mail-order options to help you get discounted prescription drugs.

AARP offers a discount prescription medication program for members. It is managed by OptumRx and can be used at over 66,000 pharmacies.

There are companies that offer mail-order pharmacy services for people who don't have health insurance. Some examples are:

  • RxOutreach provides discounted mail-order prescription services to people with income up to 400% of the poverty level.
  • Xubex
  • GoodRx

Tips for Using a Mail-Order Pharmacy

  • If you need a new medication, have your doctor write two prescriptions. One can be for two weeks that you can fill at your local pharmacy. The other would be for a 90-day supply to be sent to the mail-order pharmacy. That way, you don't have to worry about the potential delay while you're waiting for the mail-order delivery to arrive.
  • If you are paying the full cost of your medication, ask your doctor if you can use a generic. Then check if the medication is available through low-cost programs at Walmart, Target, or supermarket chains. These may be the least expensive option, with some drug costing as little as $9.99 for a 90-day supply.
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Article Sources
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  1. Do, Duy, PhD; Geldsetzer, Pascal, PhD. Trends in Mail-Order Prescription Use among U.S. Adults from 1996 to 2018: A Nationally Representative Repeated Cross-Sectional Study. September 23, 2020.

  2. Pharmacists Society of the State of New York, Inc. PBM Basics.

  3. Medicare.gov. Your Guide to Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage.

  4. RxOutreach. Do You Qualify for Rx Outreach?