Free prescription drug samples cost patients more money

Free is good, right? If you have to pay out of pocket for medicines, free prescription drug samples from your doctor’s office might seem like a godsend. But nine times out of ten, these free samples end up costing you more money. Here’s how.

First of all, pharmaceutical reps only get paid to give out brand new medicines that their companies are trying to promote. They are giving out these drugs (or vouchers for a free prescription) in the hopes of getting the doctors more familiar with using and prescribing the new medicine and to encourage docs to start their patients on them.

Many docs, myself included once upon a time, really want to help their patients out by giving them some free medicine. However, most of these free prescriptions that are showing up in our offices are used for chronic conditions: birth control pills, anti-depressants, cholesterol-lowering agents, stomach acid-reducers, etc.

So what happens when your free medicines run out and you need more of this medicine for your chronic condition?

Why, you call your doc and ask for more samples of this medicine that you are now used to taking, of course! Except now, there are no more free samples. No problem, your doc will just call in a refill for you to your local pharmacy. This is when the expensive reality of free drug samples kicks in. The following are some examples of just how much your “free samples” are really going to cost you by the end of the year (all prices from Costco):

Example 1
Loestrin 24 birth control pills: $72/month x 12 months = $864 ( – 3 FREE SAMPLES = $216) = $648 per year

Microgestin (generic) birth control pills: $21/month x 12 months = $252 per year

Example 2
Lexapro 10 mg anti-depressant pills: $92/month x 12 months = $1104 ( – 3 FREE SAMPLES) = $828 per year

Celexa (generic) anti-depressant pills: $7/month x 12 months = $84 per year

I could cite a dozen more examples, but that would be boring for both of us. You get the idea.

Suffice to say, Big Pharma wouldn’t be handing out free samples to doctors’ offices if it didn’t earn them a very tidy profit. So the next time your doc offers you some free samples of a prescription medicine you are likely to be on for a while, ask her if there are any similar generic medicines available instead.

Leslie Ramirez is an internal medicine physician and founder of Leslie’s List, which provides information that enables all patients, but especially the uninsured and underinsured, to find more affordable medications and health care services.

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