Generic drugs for common conditions like asthma, depression, diabetes, and high blood pressure may sometimes be less expensive with pharmacy discount cards than with health insurance, a new study suggests.
For the study, researchers examined patients’ out-of-pocket costs for 20 of the most commonly prescribed generic medicines for the uninsured and for individuals with private health benefits or coverage through Medicare, the government health program for people 65 and older. Researchers also calculated out-of-pocket costs for people who used pharmacy discount programs through Amazon Prime or GoodRx Gold.
Overall, these generic prescriptions had higher out-of-pocket fees than Amazon prices 20 percent of the time, with average excess costs of about $10 per prescription, the study found. Similarly, out-of-pocket fees were higher than GoodRx prices about 43 percent of the time, with average excess costs of almost $10 per prescription.
The Uninsured Saved the Most, but Amazon and GoodRx Still Often Beat Out Insurance Copays
Much of the savings was driven by the difference between uninsured patients paying cash or using one of these pharmacy discount programs, according to study results, published September 5 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Half of the generic prescriptions had higher out-of-pocket fees when people paid cash instead of using Amazon, and so did 85 percent of the generic prescriptions purchased through GoodRx.
But people who used private health insurance — the benefits offered by many employers — would pay more for their copays at the drugstore 26 percent of the time compared with Amazon and 50 percent of the time compared with GoodRx.
“Amazon and GoodRx can buy cheap generics in volume, and they’ve built their businesses around good services and low prices,” says Geoffrey Joyce, PhD, an associate professor and the chair of the department of pharmaceutical and health economics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“They are more consumer driven and are willing to earn small markups on each prescription while making up for it with purchases of other goods — with Amazon — and via membership fees,” says Dr. Joyce, who wasn’t involved in the new study.
Potential Savings Didn’t Account for Membership Fees
The GoodRx Gold program offers individual memberships for $10 a month and family memberships for $20 per month, according to the company website. Amazon Prime costs $15 per month, or $139 a year, according to the company website.
One limitation of the new study is that it didn’t account for these membership costs in determining the potential out-of-pocket savings for patients taking common generic drugs, says the lead study author, Pranav Patel, PharmD, of the University of Toledo College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Ohio.
Roughly two-thirds of households in the United States already have Amazon Prime memberships, which include the drug discount program in addition to other perks like free shipping for certain Amazon purchases and the company’s streaming video service, Patel says. This means people wouldn’t necessarily be spending extra money to use drug discounts through Amazon, Patel notes.
Drug discount programs through Amazon and GoodRx will still probably appeal most — and offer the most potential savings — for people without any insurance, Joyce says. Some people with so-called high-deductible health plans, which may require spending hundreds of dollars out of pocket on medicines before insurance benefits kick in, may also save money through these pharmacy discount programs, Joyce adds.
Exactly how much people might save depends on a lot of variables, including the exact insurance plan they have, what drugstore they use, and which medicines they take, both Joyce and Dr. Patel agree. Insurance is typically better for most brand-name medicines that don’t have generics available, Joyce adds. Common generics, however, may cost less without insurance, they both say.