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Drug discount cards confusing, but can save you a bundle

Some little-known discount drug cards could save you big money in some cases, if you don’t have prescription coverage. That’s the conclusion of a just-released study of these cards – such as the ones available to AAA and AARP members or others that you can download for free.

For its survey, the Web site checked the prices of four popular drugs (two brand name and two generics) using five different cards at CVS, Costco and an independent pharmacy in Massachusetts. The savings ranged from nothing to 71 percent off the cash price. The average discount was 16 percent. No single card was the best in every case.

“Still, you’d be foolish not get a free discount card if you don’t have prescription drug coverage,” said Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky. “Think about how easy it is. You go to a Web site and print the card. What would you rather do, pay $109 for a 30-day supply of generic Lipitor or just $50?”

Here’s one example of the savings Consumer World found. The cash price for a 30-day supply of Simvastatin, a generic version of the cholesterol-lowering drug Zocor, was $39.99 at CVS. But it was $38.99 with the AARP card, $35.99 with the AAA card and $33.30 using the National League of Cities card. The Simple Savings card brought the cash price down to $19.02. In this case, there was no savings with the Una Rx card.

But consider this: Costco’s cash price to fill this same prescription was just $5.90. The AARP card and Costco’s own free card gave an additional discount of about a dollar.

 “In the survey, Costco’s prices were less than the card prices in most cases. So if you’re a cash customer, you might want to think about where you shop,” Dworsky advised.

Comparing prices on discount cards isn’t easy

Drug prices are not transparent. It’s very easy to get the cash price, but almost impossible to find the discount price. That’s because the final pricing is done by a computer program after the order is placed based on the discount negotiated for that drug by that discount card.

You might be able to go on the card’s Web site to get a sense of what the price will be, but it won’t tell you the actual price.

“What is this?” Dworsky asked.  “This is 2012. You should be able to comparison shop and make the smartest buying decision possible. But you can’t do that very easily with these cards unless you find a very friendly pharmacist who is willing to spend the time it takes to do.”

The bottom line

If you don’t have coverage, the price of prescription medications can put a real dent in your budget. There are various ways to cut your out-of-pocket prescription expenses. If you’re on a generic drug, you might be able to get a 30-day supply for as little as $4. Many pharmacy chains, discount stores and warehouse clubs offer huge discounts on hundreds of generic drugs. Some stores charge a small annual fee ($10 to $20) to join their drug savings program. It’s free at Costco, Kroger, Rite Aid, Target and Walmart.

If you’re paying for your prescriptions, see if you can find a way to save some money. If you’re taking a brand-name drug, ask your doctor about a generic.

Check to see if any of the stores in your area offer a special discount on the drugs you take most often. Don’t leave this savings on the table.

Also, consider getting a free discount card from AARP, AAA or one of the other well-known groups that offer them for free. Again, any savings is better than nothing.

If you’ve been a regular customer at a pharmacy, go in when it’s not busy and ask if they would do a price comparison for you based on a couple of those discount cards. If not, get one or two cards and try them.  Since they’re free, you’ve got nothing to lose.