Reducing Medication Costs

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Reducing Medication Costs

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How can you lower your medicine costs?

Trying to make some changes in your lifestyle might help reduce your need for medicines. Many chronic illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and low back pain, require fewer medicines if you can increase your activity level, lose weight, and improve your diet. Also, counselling, support groups, and other therapies may help with illnesses such as depression.

How can you save money on prescriptions?

Generic medicines are less expensive copies of brand-name medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can take a generic equivalent for the brand-name medicine that you take now. Generic equivalents are made according to the same strict Therapeutic Products Directorate (TPD) standards as brand-name drugs. So generics have the same quality, strength, purity, and stability as their more expensive brand names.

Unfortunately, generic equivalents are not available for every brand-name medicine. If there is not an equivalent, ask your doctor if there is a similar medicine in the same class that may be less expensive or that has a generic equivalent. For example, Flomax, which is used to treat an enlarged prostate, is a relatively expensive medicine that does not have a generic equivalent. But another medicine that also is used for enlarged prostate, Hytrin, does have a less expensive generic equivalent.

Shop around for the best deal on medicines. The retail cost can vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy. Some pharmacies match the price that other pharmacies charge. While finding a good deal is important, be sure that your pharmacist (or pharmacists) knows your medical history, including all the drugs you take—both prescription and over-the-counter (non-prescription), as well as dietary supplements and herbs— even if you didn't get the drugs at that particular pharmacy. That way he or she can provide valuable advice about any potential for drug interactions, side effects, or other problems.

Also, compare costs of buying medicines online. Some large drugstore chains have Web sites that offer savings.

Pill splitting is another strategy that can help you save money without losing drug effectiveness or safety. Some tablets are available at double the dose and at the same or almost the same cost as lower doses. By splitting the larger dose, you can essentially get two doses for the price of one. But many medicines should not be split, including timed-release pills and capsules. The chart below lists 10 commonly prescribed medicines that researchers have determined can be split safely and effectively with significant cost savings.3

Medicines that can be split to save money
Medicine Most commonly prescribed for: Savings
Doxazosin (Cardura) Hypertension 46%
Citalopram (Celexa) Depression 46%
Clonazepam (Klonopin) Panic disorder, epilepsy 41%
Atorvastatin (Caduet) High cholesterol 33%
Paroxetine (Paxil) Depression 46%
Pravastatin (Pravachol) High cholesterol 23%
Sildenafil (Viagra) Erectile dysfunction 50%
Lisinopril (Zestril) Heart failure, high blood pressure 38%
Sertraline (Zoloft) Depression 46%
Olanzapine (Zyprexa) Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder 31%

Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your prescription medicines are sold at higher dosages and if it's possible to split them. Talk to your pharmacist about how to split pills with an inexpensive, easy-to-use pill splitter.

Buying prescriptions in bulk can also save you money. Ask your doctor to write a prescription for several months' supply of medicines that you take consistently. Keep in mind that your insurance company may limit the amount of medicine you can get at one time. Sometimes the cash price for a 3-month supply of medicine is less costly than if you were to pay an insurance copay each month for three months. Mail-order services can often save you money on large orders. But be sure to use only trusted, reliable pharmacy Web sites.

If you are trying a medicine for the first time, don't get more than a 30-day supply. That way, if you have concerns about side effects, you can talk to your doctor about trying another medicine. And you may save money by not getting more than you needed.

For more ideas about how to pay for medicines, how to remember to take them, and when to call your doctor, see Quick Tips: Taking Medicines Wisely.

How can your provincial health or private insurance plan help you save money?

Take time to find out about how your provincial health plan covers medicine costs. Prescription coverage varies from province to province. Some plans may cover only generic medicines if they are available. With some provincial health plans, you may have to pay more for medicines that are not on the plan's list of preferred medicines. Your provincial health plan also may not pay for certain medicines such as weight-loss and hair-growth drugs. Ask the customer service representative whether your medicines are covered, whether you need to buy at certain pharmacies, and about your copayment. Your provincial health plan may list this information on its Web site.

Check what your copayment for prescription drugs will be, the maximum amount the plan will pay in a year, and other details. When you buy medicines, find out which payment option will be the least expensive. Some things to consider include whether there is a generic version of a preferred medicine and whether an over-the-counter equivalent costs less than your copayment. Remember, having the right information can save you time and money.

Are prescription medicines always necessary?

There may be an over-the-counter alternative for your prescription medicine. Generic versions of over-the-counter medicines can save you even more money. Often non-prescription equivalents of prescription medicines come in lower strengths, so get instructions from your doctor or pharmacist on how to take them.

In the case of antibiotics, research has found that they are not always needed. For example, up to 80% of ear infections get better without antibiotics.1 Likewise, up to two-thirds of people with acute sinusitis improve on their own without antibiotic treatment.2 Your doctor might advise you to take a wait-and-see approach before you buy expensive antibiotics.

How can your doctor help?

To get your doctor to help, tell him or her that your prescription medicine bill is a financial burden. Ask for drugs that are less expensive but that work just as well. Often, several medicines can be used to treat the same condition, and your doctor may be able to prescribe one that costs less.

You might ask your doctor if he or she has medicine samples, vouchers, or other resources for you, especially when you are trying out a new medicine to see whether it will work.

What other resources are available?

See whether the pharmaceutical company that makes your medicine has a patient assistance program. Some companies offer free or discounted drugs for people who cannot afford them. These companies often require that your doctor contact them first about your case. Your doctor will need to be involved, and the application process can be complex. You may need to provide documentation to verify your income.

If you have a rare disease, contact the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders. This organization help people who have rare diseases find better and more affordable access to medicines. For more information, see the organization's Web site:

If you are a veteran, you may qualify for prescription drug coverage through Veterans Affairs Canada. For more information, see the agency's Web site:

Other Places To Get Help

Online Resource
Web Address:

This Web site provides information on the various prescription medication plans in Canada and how to obtain reimbursement.


Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders
151 Bloor Street West
Suite 600
Toronto, ON  M5S 1S4
Phone: 1-877-302-7273 toll-free
(416) 969-7464
Web Address:

The Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders (CORD) provides information on over 6,000 rare conditions. Through a network system, CORD links together individuals and families with the same rare disorder.

Canadian Pharmacists Association
1785 Alta Vista Drive
Ottawa, ON  K1G 3Y6
Phone: 1-800-917-9489
(613) 523-7877
Fax: (613) 523-0445
Web Address:

This Web site has a patient section, which provides consumers information and frequently asked questions on how their pharmacists can help them understand more about their medication and how to stay healthy.



  1. Bradley-Stevenson C, et al. (2007). Otitis media in children (acute), search date January 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence. Also available online:
  2. Ah-See, K (2008). Sinusitis (acute), search date August 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence. Also available online:
  3. Stafford RS, Radley DC (2002). The potential of pill splitting to achieve cost savings. American Journal of Managed Care, 8(8): 706–712.

Other Works Consulted

  • Kass-Bartelmes BL, Bosco L (2002). Prescription Drug Therapies: Reducing Costs and Improving Outcomes. Research in Action Issue No. 8 (AHRQ Publication No. 02-0045). Rockville, MD: Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.
  • Kesselheim AS, Choudhry NK (2008). The international pharmaceutical market as a source of low-cost prescription drugs for U.S. patients. Annals of Internal Medicine, 148(8): 614–619.
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2009). Coverage of personal importations. Regulatory Procedures Manual 2009, chap. 9. Available online:


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Theresa O'Young, PharmD - Clinical Pharmacy
Specialist Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Last Revised November 20, 2009

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.