How to Save Money on Prescription Drugs

Tiffany Onyejiaka
January 1, 2021
Tiffany Onyejiaka


Even with decent health insurance, never mind no insurance, paying for the medications you need isn’t always easy. That’s where prescription discount plans come in. These programs can provide the assistance you need to get the treatment you require, with price reductions that can run as high as 80 percent.

How do I join a prescription discount plan?

Unlike applying for traditional health insurance, getting a prescription discount card is simple and straightforward. Some cards have a streamlined signup, while others only require you to download their card online.

Most prescription discount programs, such as SingleCare and ScriptSave WellRx, are free to you. Some others, such as RetailMeNot’s Rx Saver, have a monthly membership fee, which can run from $10 to $50. You can join as many programs as you like (and that make sense for you financially).

Once you have your card, just present it at the pharmacy and, voila, your medications are instantly less expensive.

Why do they exist?

Prescription discount programs grew out of consumers’ inability to afford certain medications, whether because they had no health insurance, had coverage with high copayss or deductibles, or needed name-brand drugs that weren’t covered by their plans.

How do the discounts work?

Both for-profit companies and non-profit organizations negotiate the discounts on your behalf. In some cases, they negotiate directly with the pharmacy chains; in others they simply display the discounts that were negotiated by third parties called Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) that are a sort of go-between for drug companies and insurers.

GoodRX is an example of the latter model of discount programs, and makes its money on fees it charges pharmacies that accept its cards. Other discount cards include the non-profit FamilyWaze and the private SingleCare.

What gives these discount programs the muscle to negotiate discounts? It’s you, the consumer. The companies leverage the power of their large user base to entice pharmacies into discounting medications. Optum, one of the largest PBMs, has 18.6 million cardholders of its Optum Perks Rx discount card. That’s a lot of purchasing power.

So what’s the catch? The discounts displayed aren’t always up to date. That means you might buy into a program for discounts that don’t actually exist anymore. Remember to call your pharmacy to make sure it accepts the card you’re considering, and that the discount is as advertised.

How much do I have to pay for drugs under a prescription discount program?

The obvious answer is: It varies, depending on discount card, medicine, and pharmacy.

Many discount programs tout savings of up to 80 percent off retail price. Others offer as little as 10 percent off. Again, you’ve got to check with the individual discount program and then again with your pharmacy.

Keep in mind that discounts only apply to negotiated prices. In other words, your discount card won’t help with every drug. That’s the advantage of having more than one card. If one doesn’t work at the pharmacy, another might.

How do discount prescription programs differ from drug manufacturer coupons?

Anyone can use a prescription discount card anywhere it’s accepted. Drug manufacturer coupons, on the other hand, won’t work if you have Medicare.

While drug discount cards have no limit on usage, manufacturer coupons typically have a yearly maximum benefit. That means you can only use so many in a given period and then have to pay full retail price.

What’s the bottom line?

You can’t go wrong with a free discount card. If you use a card even once or twice it might be worth a small fee. Higher-priced cards require more research. But in a world with increasing health care costs, prescription discount cards are another cost-cutting tool worth exploring and a potentially great way to reduce what you pay out of pocket for medicines.  

Tiffany Onyejiaka, a clinic case manager who is studying for her master's in environmental health, writes about issues surrounding healthcare. She is based in the Washington, D.C. area.

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