Spend less on medicine; 5 ways to save, 3 traps to avoid

Average American spends $59 per month

Paying for medication is a major budget concern for many people, even for those with prescription drug coverage.

Americans spend an average of $59 a month out of their own pockets for prescription medicines, according to a 2011 Consumer Reports national survey. And 12 percent of the survey respondents said they spend more than $100 a month, or $1,200 a year.

To help you slash your spending, we consulted the medical experts at Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs, which provides unbiased information about medicines to help consumers make smart choices. They recommended these five ways to cut the cost of your medications without endangering your health.

Generic drugs can cost up to 95 percent less than comparable brand-name ones, and nearly three-quarters of all medications are available in a generic version. The shape, size and color may differ from the brand-name version, but the active ingredients are the same. The Food and Drug Administration regulates generics in the same way it does brand-name drugs.

Doctors don't always consider a patient's ability to pay for their medications when they prescribe them, according to our annual surveys. So be sure to speak up when your doctor is ready to prescribe a drug. Explain that cost is important to you, especially if you will have to take the medication for an extended period of time or indefinitely.

Chain drugstores, supermarkets, big-box retailers and pharmacies at warehouse clubs have all offered so-called "$4 generic drug" discount programs for nearly a decade. Prices can be as low as $10 for a three-month supply of medicine.

Most chains offer added perks, such as savings on flu shots. Kmart's Pharmacy Savings Club gives discounts of 5 to 20 percent on brand-name drugs. Walgreens' Prescription Savings Club members also get 10 percent off store-brand products and photo-finishing services.

Program details vary, so it's important to shop around. When checking them out, ask the pharmacist on duty if your medications are covered and if you qualify for additional discounts.

Although many neighborhood independent pharmacies might not offer or widely advertise a discount generic drug program like their national competitors, store owners might be willing to match the prices of the big chain stores. It's worth asking, especially if you expect to be on a medication for a long time, or even if you just prefer to shop at a neighborhood pharmacy.

WEB EXTRA: Click here to see the rise in the cost of prescription drugs over the past five years: http://on.wews.com/TAOQkB

In a recent Consumer Reports subscriber survey, independent pharmacies scored highest for providing faster service, making fewer errors and being more likely to have medications ready for pickup when promised. Readers also liked mom-and-pop drugstores for their personal service and the accessibility of pharmacists.

Regardless of which type of pharmacy you decide to use, you should fill all your prescriptions at one place rather than shopping around for the best price on each medication. Aside from the convenience, having a single pharmacy that tracks all your prescriptions can help make sure you don't experience drug interactions or other safety problems.

Last year, Consumer Reports searched for the best prices on four widely prescribed brand-name drugs: Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, and Singulair. The lowest prices were found on three websites: HealthWarehouse.com , http://Familymeds.com and drugstore.com . Prices at Costco.com were the same as at its walk-in stores.

Be careful choosing an online pharmacy. Those listed above are fine. But a recent analysis of more than 8,000 online pharmacies by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found just 3 percent appeared to be legitimate. Many sites didn't require a prescription; others sold unapproved medication or were located outside the U.S. The problem with selling medications from other countries is that there's no way to ensure their safety or legitimacy.

The FDA doesn't regulate foreign versions of medicines bought over the Internet. Don't assume a Canadian website is safe. Most online pharmacies claiming to be Canadian aren't. And even legitimate Canadian online pharmacies shipping to the U.S. don't fall under any government's jurisdiction. In other words, no agency—U.S. or Canadian—regulates them, making it hard to know if drugs shipped from any online Canadian source are safe.

Insurance companies that cover prescription drugs and Medicare Part D plans have formularies that offer pricing advantages when you fill prescriptions from their "tier 1" list (usually generic drugs) and "preferred" medications (branded and generic). On private plans, the

average co-pay for tier 1 drugs is $10, and $29 for preferred, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Co-pays for drugs on a plan's "nonpreferred" list average $49, and $91 for very-high-priced medications or so-called "lifestyle" drugs, which are not medically necessary.

Some insurance plans might offer additional discounts if you choose to get your prescriptions through their mail-order service, which can be especially helpful for people with chronic conditions. Again, though, it's best to use a single source for all your prescriptions if possible.

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