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How to get free or discounted prescription drugs during the coronavirus crisis

Pharmacies across the U.S. are stepping up to help consumers find affordable meds

Even before Dustin Quinn, 33, became one of the 30 million Americans to lose their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, she was just getting by. Working 24 hours a week for $12.25 per hour at the front desk of a hotel in Fargo, N.D., she made enough, barely, to cover expenses.

So being laid off quickly triggered her own financial crisis. First, Quinn’s car was repossessed when she could no longer make car loan payments. Next, she was threatened with eviction from her apartment.

Another worry: How would she pay for her two anti-anxiety prescriptions?

At $60 for a three-month supply, it was sometimes a challenge to cover them even before she lost her part-time job. And now, with no income, no car, and possibly no place to live, she had no idea how she would be able to pay for her needed medication. And the prospect of being without them seemed frightening.

“Not having that secure paycheck every two weeks was tough,” Quinn says. “I was worried.”

Thankfully, for people in Quinn’s situation help is available.

For example, some small independent pharmacies are stepping up to help people in their communities get medication during the ongoing emergency. “Our first and only responsibility is to take care of our customers and our community,” says Tom DePietro, Pharm.D., owner of DiPietro’s Pharmacy in Dunmore, Pa., who started offering free prescriptions to the unemployed in March. “It’s worth it.”

Other pharmacies, including some large ones, such as certain CVS and Walgreens stores, are highlighting long-standing but not well-known programs that allow them to register with federal or state health clinics to provide prescriptions free or at sharply reduced prices.

Several hundred nonprofit pharmacies located across the country, often run by charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, say they have seen a spike in the people seeking their help, which can include providing free prescriptions to people in need.

There are other ways to get help with your drugs, too, including registering for programs offered by drugmakers and signing up for Medicaid.

That’s what ultimately helped Quinn. Her state, North Dakota, was one of 36 that, since the last recession in 2007 to 2009, has made it easier for people to sign up for Medicaid. Her application was quickly processed and approved, she says. And her next prescriptions will cost her only $2 each.

Here’s more about the ways you can get free or low-cost drugs during the ongoing crisis.

Talk with your local pharmacist

DiPietro remembers the exact moment he decided to offer unemployed people in his community free prescriptions. He was standing outside his house, watching his daughter drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, thinking how lucky he was—and how worried he was about people who had lost their jobs.

Soon after, he announced a new program: Show proof of unemployment and he will give local patients a 90-day supply of any generic drug they need. “I’m taking a loss on every prescription,” DePietro says.

“No one is paying me for this.” He estimates it will cost him upward of $10,000. But, he says, “It’s worth it.”

News of his response to the crisis spread to Pittsburgh, prompting another store, Asti’s Pharmacy, to offer a similar program for its local customers. Provide proof you lost your job, and co-owner Chris Antypas, Pharm.D., will give you a 90-day supply of most generic drugs free of charge.

Even though the pharmacy has promoted its new program, “most patients still may not be aware we offer it,” Antypas says.

So if you’re struggling financially to get the drugs you need, he recommends asking your local independent pharmacist if they can help out. “Ask if they have any specific savings programs that could help you,” he says, “otherwise they might not be aware you’re facing a hardship.”

Even if you haven’t lost your job, "pharmacists are experts at finding low-cost, affordable options for patients,” Antypas says.

Look for pharmacies that partner with community health centers

Nearly a quarter of pharmacies across the country participate in a federal program—called "340B" in industry lingo—that allows them to partner with publicly supported community health centers that offer free or reduced-cost drugs to people in need.

Wolker Drugs, in Baxter Springs, Kan., is a 340B pharmacy. Patients treated at nearby Baxter Springs Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas who come to the pharmacy with a prescription can get medication at a very low cost, says Brian Caswell, president of the pharmacy and president of the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Some pharmacies that belong to large national chains are also designated as 340B pharmacies. Walgreens has the most, according to the Drug Channels Institute, an industry research group, while some Albertsons, CVS, Rite Aid, and Walmart pharmacies also participate.

To find a community health center in your area, use the Find a Health Center tool run by the federal Health Resources & Services Administration.

Or Caswell recommends simply calling drugstores in your area until you find one that says it is a 340B pharmacy. Then ask for the name of the health center in the community that they partner with to make an appointment to see whether you qualify for reduced-cost care and prescriptions.

Consider a charitable pharmacy

Some pharmacies are registered nonprofits, often staffed by volunteer pharmacists and technicians, and typically rely on private donations and small grants to provide free prescriptions to those in need.

These charitable pharmacies number several hundred throughout the U.S., usually in large metro areas or rural locations, according to the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

Faith Community Pharmacy in Florence, Ky., is one. During the coronavirus crisis, it has offered a two-month supply to anyone in the local community who says they need it, says Aaron Broomall, executive director of Faith Community Pharmacy. He says it has seen a 20 percent increase in patients since the outbreak began.

Once things return to “normal,” Bromall says, patients whose needs go beyond the initial prescription can enroll to stay in their program if they meet certain income limits. Patients can have insurance, Broomall says, and most do.

In nearby Cincinnati, Mike Espel, R.Ph., director of pharmacy at the St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy, says he has also seen a greater need in recent weeks. No qualifying patient has to pay anything for their medication, he says. To get free prescriptions, you need to show that your monthly expenses equal or exceed your monthly income, he says. He says about half of clients are “woefully underinsured,” meaning they have some form of coverage but because of high deductibles or large copays, the person simply can’t afford the price of the drug.

St. Vincent de Paul charities run roughly a dozen other pharmacies across the U.S. Each can set its own rules. For example, Carlos Irula, Pharm.D., says that at the St. Vincent pharmacy in Dallas, to qualify for free drugs patients must have no insurance and have income no higher than 200 percent of the federal poverty limit—about $25,000 for an individual and about $52,000 for a family of four. Staff on site can help people negotiate the needed paperwork, Irula says.

“We’re here to help,” Irula says. “We know that a lot of people are going through some tough times, and we know we’ll get through this.”

Go to the St. Vincent de Paul charities website to see if the organization has a location near you. Many of the services go beyond free medication and may include things like food delivery or medical transportation.

To find other charitable pharmacies, use the Find a Clinic tool run by the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. Note that not every clinic listed there will have a pharmacy. Or simply try a Google search for “charitable pharmacy” and your location to see whether one is near you

Enroll in drug company programs

Almost all pharmaceutical manufacturers have programs to help people without insurance obtain medication at no charge, says Rich Sagall, M.D., president of NeedyMeds, a nonprofit that tracks drug discount programs and connects people with the programs free of charge.

Sagall and his team track all manufacturer discount programs, including what’s known as “Patient Assistance Programs,” where if you can prove you earn less than a given amount, companies will send you medication free.

He says several companies, including Eli Lilly, Merck, and Novo Nordisk, have increased the maximum annual income levels for people applying to some of their programs, so you can earn more and still qualify.

Another nonprofit service, RxAssist, has a lookup tool and links to drug company assistance programs.

Consider low-cost generics at big retailers

If you can’t qualify for free meds, consider that chain and big-box pharmacies still offer hundreds of generics for just a few dollars a month, no insurance needed. If you go this route, you may want to shop around.

Walmart has long featured a $4-per-month or $10-per-three-month program for hundreds of generic drugs.

Just last week, Walgreens expanded the drugs included in its discount membership program (annual fee of $20 per individual or $35 per family), which now offers hundreds of generics for just $5, $10, or $15 per month. According to Alexandra Brown, spokesperson for Walgreens, the chain pharmacy lowered prices on certain medications, including generic Lipitor for high cholesterol (now $15, down from $70); generic Lexapro for depression ($15, down from $95); and generic Viagra ($15, down from $99).

Walmart offers the same $15 price for generic Lipitor and Lexapro, no annual membership needed, and offers low-cost versions of other generics.

Costco has previously come in with the lowest cash prices for any big box chain store on the drugs our CR shoppers have checked. Bonus: You don’t have to be a Costco member to use its pharmacy, says Vic Curtis, vice president of pharmacy at Costco.

If you don’t need a low-cost drug immediately, online pharmacies such as Healthwarehouse can be an option. Generic Lipitor, for example, can be ordered for $11, generic Lexapro for $10.20, and generic Viagra, $9.50. Shipping is free, though it could take up to five days for delivery.

Newcomer Honeybee, which, like Healthwarehouse, doesn’t accept insurance, is worth checking out.

But note that it doesn’t ship to 11 states, including Oregon, Michigan, and Indiana. (See the full list.) Shipping is free, but it could take between seven and 10 days for medications to reach your doorstep.

In most pharmacies, you can get even bigger discounts if you purchase a 90-day supply.

If you don’t get a good price from any of the above, check out a new program by Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager that usually handles drug coverage plans for large organizations. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting unemployment, it now offers thousands of generic drugs directly to consumers at no more than $25 for a month’s supply for the newly uninsured. Express Scripts will deliver to your home, or you can get prescriptions filled at a participating pharmacy near you by first entering your drug name, strength, and quantity, and your ZIP code.

Read more about ordering drugs online, including the risk of getting drugs from an oversease pharmacy.

Sign up for Medicaid

If you live in the District of Columbia or one of 36 states that expanded Medicaid since the last recession in 2007 to 2009, you may qualify if your monthly income falls below $1,467 for an individual or $3,013 for a family of four. In other states, Medicaid is available only to people with children who make, on average, about $8,700 or less for a family of three.

Healthcare.gov has a series of screener questions about where you live and how much you earn that can direct you to the appropriate sign-up in your state if you qualify. You can apply for Medicaid any time after you’ve lost health insurance through your job, and if approved, coverage can begin on the date you apply or the first day of the month that you applied, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.