By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
During my starving-student days, I remember finding a pizza mix for one dollar at the local grocery store. Upon opening the box, I found that it contained a one dollar coupon for the next box. Math was never my strong point, but that means the pizza mix was half-price! I went down and bought twelve more boxes, took out the twelve coupons and got 12 more free. Of course, now I had 25 pizza mixes—enough to feed me for an entire semester, more or less.
My wife saves some coupons and gets excited when she can save several dollars at the grocery store. Some people become addicted to couponing and have elaborate files so they can be easily located. The only coupons that I use are the ones for off on an oil change. I keep them in my wallet until they expire, and then I throw them away.
Now, coupons have hit the medical office…
Our sample cabinets were once full, enticing medical providers to try some of the newer medications, but not anymore. Our office has restricted pharmaceutical representatives so much that now the cupboards are bare. Well, sort of…
In place of all of those pharmaceutical samples are now coupons – a new marketing ploy by the pharmaceutical industry to help maintain their market share. I rarely hand them out, but some people really appreciate the financial discount that many of these coupons offer. Some coupons pay up to or more toward the co-payment for an entire year for these brand-name drugs. That can add up, assuming a person uses the medication for this long. Long-term asthma medication and other chronic conditions are prime coupon targets. Of course, what happens after the year is over? The companies are hoping you will continue to pay the retail price, even without a coupon.
These coupons should not be confused with the patient assistance programs that many manufacturers are offering. These programs are typically for the under-insured or non-insured patients who really need them. By going on the drug manufacturer’s web site, consumers are often surprised that they can apply for free or heavily discounted medications. A friend on an expensive asthma medication recently was approved to get his medicine free for an entire year.
Personally, I don’t think coupons are really worth the trouble. I tend to go to great lengths to prescribe less-expensive medications for my patients. These are typically generics. I like to feel that I am never pressured to prescribe brand-name medications when generic equivalents are available. Pharmacies are obligated to fill a prescription with a generic equivalent, unless we have specifically ordered a brand name and put the words “do not substitute” on the prescription pad. I still have patients who insist on brand names, even though they will cost considerably more. It’s their money.
I keep a copy of a past Consumer Report on the “Best Discount Pharmacies” and encourage my patients to use the pharmacies and mail-in drug discount programs known to be less expensive. Some appreciate the suggestion; some really don’t care and will go to the pharmacy that is closest and the one with the drive-through. Whatever.
Some large chain stores now offer hundreds of different medications for only a few dollars per month. Why pay more? Other pharmacies are starting to copy this marketing tool.
Pharmacies still have their marketing tricks. They advertise lost-leaders – selling some common medications at less than the actual cost. This brings in new customers who just assume the other medications are less expensive, too. Often, they are not. Savvy shoppers will just get the lost-leaders and leave.
Generics and store-brands line the shelves. Most brand names, which tend to be more expensive, are on the eye-level shelves. The less-expensive generics may be a shelf or two below. Often, you have to look for them or even ask for them.
I have a pharmacist friend who owned several private pharmacies. Did you know that one of the reasons that your prescription may not be immediately ready when you go to pick it is up is because they tend to make more money when you have to wait ten minutes? They count on the fact that your consumer eyes will wander about finding good deals on cough medications, a new thermometer, toilet paper, or even a case of motor oil. I once bought a patio set – table and six chairs — while waiting for a prescription. Even I am not immune to their crafty marketing.
Coupons can save money if you were planning on buying the product anyway; otherwise coupons are just marketing gimmicks.