Photo: Flickr via sjon
With household medical costs soaring year after year, drug coupons offered by insurance companies can be a lifeline for patients with chronic diseases who require prescriptions year-round. But it turns out these discounts might actually be more of a burden than a bargain for consumers, according to a new study by the American Medical Association.
Longer costs over time
There are an estimated 340 discount prescription programs in the U.S. and each comes with its own set of limitations and rules––including how many times and for how long they can be used.
“Many coupons are for pharmacotherapies for chronic diseases. If patients do not make changes to their treatments as coupon programs end, their annual out-of-pocket expenses could easily increase by several hundred dollars.”
In addition, some drugs still aren’t a better bargain than generics. Take this example from Consumer Reports, which compared brand-name diabetes drug Actos to generics:
“Although Actos is used to treat type 2 diabetes, three other low-cost generic medications actually work as well as or better than Actos: metformin, glimepiride, and glipizide, alone or in combination. A month’s supply of each of them is less than $30, and they can be found on the discount generic drug lists of many chain pharmacies for as little as $4.”
An unfair advantage
For the same reason that doctors and hospitals aren’t typically allowed to discount co-pays for patients, drug coupon opponents say manufacturers shouldn’t be allowed to dole out discounts either.
They argue patients might be swayed to use a certain physician or stick with a particular drug simply because they think they’re saving with coupons.
The other thing about drug coupons is that patients are often asked to go to drug companies’ websites to download them.
“Some of these websites require patients to provide personal information, such as home address, medical diagnosis, or even disease severity,” Grande says. “By doing so, patients are revealing to drug manufacturers their medical condition along with identifying information, which can be used for future marketing.”
Higher premiums for everyone
While drug coupons lower the cost of medications for patients, insurers are often the ones left to cover the rest of the cost. And the more they spend out of pocket, the higher premiums are for everyone.
The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade association of pharmacy benefit managers, says drug coupons could increase prescription spending for insured patients by $32 billion over the next 10 years, Grande notes.
To be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into with drug coupons, don’t leave your doctor’s office before asking for help deciphering all the fine print.
“Physicians should avoid dispensing coupons or encouraging coupon unless a patient is experiencing a financial hardship and has a clear clinical indication for a drug for which a coupon is available,” Grande says. “This will require physicians to devote time to educating patients about the potential drawbacks of drug coupons, including the potential for higher long-term costs and possible disruptions of therapy when coupon programs end or change.”
If you’re looking for the lowest prices on medications, see our roundup of apps that will help you save at the drugstore.