How to save on prescription, OTC drugs

You may not remember when Claritin was a prescription drug. The patent for the nonsedating antihistamine for allergies expired in 2002, and the drug subsequently landed on drugstore shelves as an over-the-counter medication.

Last month, Nexium — the ‘‘little purple pill’’ used to treat acid reflux — went off patent.

A generic version should be available soon, and it is now also available OTC — over the counter.

Anyone looking for a break on the cost of medications knows that generic and OTC drugs are more affordable.

When patents expire, it opens up the market to competition — and to better prices for the consumer.


But since it is in the best interests of drug manufacturers to keep prices high for as long as possible, they may tweak the formula, making the new ‘‘improved’’ version of the drug ineligible for a generic substitution.

A generic manufacturer may file a lawsuit before the patent expires and win exclusive rights to the drug for six months, while drug manufacturers may use the extra time in court to introduce new or similar drugs to the market.

According to a Consumer Reports survey, it can take six months to a year for prices to fall substantially lower than the prescription price, but it pays to be patient.

Nexium, for example, is expected to drop from $275 for a 30-day supply to $137 by 2015 and to $14 by 2017.

Lunesta, a treatment for insomnia that also went off patent this year, already has a generic equivalent. The $193 prescription price for a 15-day supply is expected to decline to $97 within a year.

Here are some things you can do to save the most on your medications:

Don’t depend on discounts

Drug makers may issue coupons for certain prescription drugs, but don’t be seduced.

A coupon may save you money on the purchase, but it could result in higher insurance premiums later, Consumer Reports found.


Choose generic drugs whenever possible.

You can check the website of the Food and Drug Administration to find the generic equivalents for your brand-name drugs.

Know your dates

Find out the patent expiration dates for any drugs that you are taking. You can’t rely on doctors, however, because they may continue to prescribe medications that are available over the counter.

In addition, if you want a generic drug, make sure you ask your doctor to write a prescription for a drug that can be filled generically.

Comparison shop

As with anything, it pays to compare.

Try GoodRx, which is available online or as a free app, to help you find the lowest prices for prescription drugs.

Even if you have insurance, GoodRx can help you beat your co-payment or find a low price on drugs that aren’t covered.

Explore OTC drugs

As noted, many over-the-counter drugs were once prescription-only pharmaceuticals.

There is no reason why you can’t take them on a short-term basis for common ailments.

But ask your doctor to suggest the proper dosage for OTC treatments.

Buy mass market

So-called secret shoppers for Consumer Reports found that stores like Walmart and Target beat drugstore chains and supermarkets on prices for brand-name and generic OTC drugs. If you do shop at drugstores, be sure to use loyalty cards and coupons to offset the higher costs.