Could you really get your prescriptions for free? You might qualify for free medicines (or low-cost ones) if:
- You don’t have health insurance.
- You don’t have enough health insurance to afford them.
- The drugs you need aren't covered by your insurance.
Some programs are even available for those who don’t qualify for Medicaid, the government program that provides health coverage to people with very low incomes, or Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 and up and those with disability.
If you're having trouble affording your medication, a good first step is to tell your doctor. They may be able to change your medication to one that your insurance covers, prescribe a lower-cost generic drug, or point you to programs that can help.
Patient Assistance Programs
Many drug companies have patient assistance programs (PAPs) that cover some or all of the costs of their medicines. You can find information about them on drugmakers' websites or through nonprofit sites. Your doctor or pharmacist may also be able to point you to one.
Each drug company has its own rules and application forms, so you'll want to check specific programs for details. Some common requirements include:
- Proof that your income is below a certain level
- U.S. citizenship or legal residency
- Lack of prescription insurance coverage
Every company decides how long you can get help and which medications are available through its program. While you can find most name brands on PAPs, some drugmakers only offer some of their products through their assistance program.
You may need to reapply for these from time to time. For some programs, your doctor will need to apply for you.
Some of the websites that can help you find and apply for PAPs include:
Federal and State Programs
You can also enroll in federal and state services to lower your prescription costs.
Medicaid. Every state offers prescription coverage to those enrolled in Medicaid. But rules about which drugs are covered and copays vary from state to state. Reach out to your state Medicaid office for information about prescription payment help and drug discount programs that are available where you live.
Medicare. If you're 65 or older, you can sign up for Medicare drug coverage (Part D) as a first step. Part D is an optional benefit from private insurance companies for an extra fee.
Medicare Part D may also qualify you for some drug assistance programs that could further lower your medication costs.
Extra Help program. This federal program helps people on Medicare afford prescription drugs. Depending on how much you make, Extra Help covers some or most of the costs for your Medicare Part D coverage – things like plan premiums, deductibles, and copays. If you're also on Medicaid or get Supplemental Security Income, you automatically qualify for Extra Help. Otherwise, you can apply.
State pharmaceutical assistance programs. Several states also offer programs that help uninsured or underinsured residents pay for medications. Most are aimed at people who don't qualify for Medicaid. All work differently, and rules on who qualifies vary from plan to plan. Some coordinate with Medicare's drug benefit plan. Some are aimed at people with certain conditions, like HIV. StateRxPlans.us has a list of state drug plans with information about how they work.
Sometimes, affordable or no-cost choices are as close as your local pharmacy. Among the cost saving programs pharmacies offer are:
Independent programs. If there’s a small local pharmacy near you, check to see if it has a program for those who need more affordable prescriptions. Several chain pharmacies, such as Walgreens and Walmart, offer prescription savings programs for an annual fee.
Partnerships with community health centers. Another option is to look for a 340B pharmacy. These pharmacies are part of a federal program that lets them partner with community health centers to provide medications free or at low cost. Some Albertsons, CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Walmart pharmacies take part in these partnerships. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration website offers a Find a Health Center tool that can help you find a health center near you.
Nonprofit pharmacies. Some pharmacies are funded by donations and grants. This allows them to give free medications to people looking for support. For instance, St. Vincent de Paul runs about a dozen pharmacies in the U.S. Visit the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics website to find other nonprofit pharmacies.
Online or mail-order pharmacies. Not only are they convenient, but these pharmacies are often less expensive. You may also be able to get a 90-day supply of your prescription, which means fewer copays for refills. Ask your doctor if this might be an option for your medication.
Discount Cards and Coupons
Coupons and discount cards are other money-saving options that work at thousands of pharmacies across the nation. In many cases, you use them instead of insurance. Your pharmacist can see which will cost you less. Keep in mind that if you don't use your insurance, the expense may not count against your plan's deductible or annual out-of-pocket maximum unless you submit your receipts manually.
County prescription drug discount cards. U.S. counties that are members of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and join the association's Live Healthy program may offer their residents a free prescription drug discount card. The card gets you discounts on medications at more than 65,000 pharmacies across the country.
Other prescription discount cards. Different companies and organizations offer these cards that act like coupons. The discounts you get vary, and so do which medications you can use them for. Watch out for cards that charge a fee. And read the fine print to see if the card provider will sell your personal information.
Prescription coupons. You may get them from your doctor, companies like GoodRx, or online (including through WebMDRx). Drug companies also offer copay coupons, also known as copay cards, to help insured people lower copay costs for their brand-name medications. You can't use manufacturer coupons with Medicare or Medicaid, because these programs classify them as kickbacks. Check with your doctor or pharmacist or check online to see if your medication has a copay program.
Nonprofit Groups Can Help
Many nonprofits will help you pay for prescriptions, if you meet their requirements, or find the information you need to get the best price. A few include:
- Partnership for Prescription Assistance
- Patient Advocate Foundation’s Co-Pay Relief
- Accessia Health
Some nonprofits that advocate for specific conditions also offer help for people with those conditions, including the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the American Diabetes Association.
Photo Credit: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images
Asthma and Allergy Association of America: "Drug Assistance Programs."
RxAssist: "Frequently Asked Questions About Patient Assistance Programs."
Harvard Health Publishing: "7 ways to save cash on prescription drugs."
NeedyMeds: "Prescription Assistance," "Co-pay Cards FAQs."
National Alliance on Mental Illness: "Getting Help Paying for Medications."
Consumer Reports: "5 Ways to Save on Prescription Drugs," "How to Get Free or Discounted Prescription Drugs During the Coronavirus Crisis," "A Drugstore Tool We're Not Crazy About."
The diaTribe Foundation: "When and Why to Consider Mail-Order Prescriptions."
Medicare: "5 ways to get help with prescription costs," "Lower prescription costs."
National Council on Aging: "Prescription Help from States and Drug Manufacturers."
Medicare Interactive: "SPAP basics."
Mental Health America: "How Can I Get Help Paying For My Prescriptions?"
National Association of Counties: "With NACo, Saving Feels Better."
Health Affairs: "Prescription Drug Coupons: A One-Size-Fits-All Policy Approach Doesn't Fit The Evidence."
Medicare Rights Center: "Charity programs that help pay for prescriptions."
National Conference of State Legislatures: "State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs," "Medicaid Prescription Drug Laws and Strategies."
Journal of The American Geriatrics Society: "Medication Access in America and Medicare Part D: Prescription Shopping Saves but May Be Costly."