Combating escalating drug prices

Alex, 18, is home from college. He’s studying to be a respiratory therapist. For his summer job, he bikes 16 miles from Avon to North Olmsted and back, leaving at 5:10 a.m. every morning. He’s affable, athletic and “not unique.” Most remarkable, he’s been a diabetic since age 4 – and managed to keep nearly perfect glucose control.

Alex’s body makes no insulin. For every meal and activity, he calculates his carb and insulin needs. He thinks nothing of it. But in the past few years, a problem has crept up on him, and eight million other insulin-dependent diabetics in the U.S.

From 2002 to 2013, the price of insulin tripled (a vial of insulin went from $231 to $736). Who knows why. A survey shows almost half of diabetics skip needed medical care because they can’t afford it.

Facing unpredictable, blistering drug prices? Tell your doctor; then try these three simple steps.

1. Generic substitutes

If available, hallelujah.

When a new drug’s patent expires (about 10 years), others can make the same drug for less. Both generic- and brand-name drugs have the same active ingredient, differing only in inactive ingredients. Black with white stripes or white with black stripes, a zebra is a zebra. Many grocers and pharmacies offer $4 generic-drug programs. These drugs are a steal. Ask your pharmacist specifically, “Is there a substitute?” “What’s the best you can do?” I hate to admit it, but pharmacists know prices and discounts better than me.

2. Websites

Many websites track drug prices and negotiate directly for deals. Try first. No membership necessary. Coupons easily accessible.

3. Buy Foreign

My neighbor goes back to Greece every summer to visit his family and to buy his Lipitor. It’s not “legal” to buy medications overseas, not even in Canada. But judging by his grin, I figure his savings are significant.

No Greek connection? Try, a U.S. website which vets foreign pharmacies and compares their prices. It’s especially helpful for drugs without generic alternatives.

In a recent HuffPost article, Dr. Todd Cooperman, founder and CEO of, compared U.S. and overseas prices of 20 brand-name medications (including two types of insulin and asthma inhalers). I’m impressed by the savings – but not surprised.

Of note, these pharmacies require legitimate U.S. prescriptions, charge a flat fee ($5 to $10) for shipping (so combine orders) and can take weeks to arrive.

I price-checked five commonly prescribed drugs: simvastatin (Zocor, cholesterol), levothyroxine (Synthroid, thyroid), metformin (Glucophage, diabetes), amlodipine (Norvasc, blood pressure), adapalene (Differin, acne).

For a three-month supply of all five drugs in generic versions, the cheapest aggregate price is $95 on GoodRx, $114 on PharmacyChecker. For the brand-name, it’s $2,371 on GoodRx, $243 on PharmacyChecker.

In three years, the copay for one of Alex's insulins, NovoLog, went from $206 to $420. Without consulting his physician, his health insurance changed his insulin. He now pays $150. Rolling with the change, he’s contemplative. “You suck it up and deal with it.” For now, this mantra has to do.

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Volume 10, Issue 13, Posted 9:26 AM, 07.03.2018