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Check out drug coupons, then check bottom line

Many consumers don't know that deals are available. But generics are often still cheaper.

December 03, 2007|Francesca Lunzer Kritz | Special to The Times

The next time your pharmacist hands over a prescription and the bill, consider handing something back -- a coupon.

More than 200 drug coupons available online or from doctors or pharmacists have face values that could save individual consumers tens to hundreds of dollars each year.

But few patients seem to know about them. Only about 1% of the 286 billion grocery coupons distributed last year were redeemed, according to market research firm CMS Inc., but the percentage is even lower, for now, for prescription drug coupons.

Drug companies often do little marketing for the discounts, says David Harrell, chief executive of Optimizerx.com, a website launched early this year that posts links to drug coupons for consumers. The money-saving offers include not just coupons, but free trials, rebates and loyalty cards that save money on future prescriptions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, December 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug coupons: A quote was misattributed to Carl Cohen of Cegedim Dendrite in a Health section article Monday on drug coupons. The observation that more companies have begun to create enticements for particular brand-name drugs, partly in response to a growing number of lower-cost generic versions, should have been attributed to Harvey Brofman, vice president of Opus Health, a division of Cegedim Dendrite.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, December 10, 2007 Home Edition Health Part F Page 8 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Drug coupons: A quote attributed to Carl Cohen of Cegedim Dendrite in a Dec. 3 Health section article on drug coupons should have been attributed to Harvey Brofman, vice president of Opus Health, a division of Cegedim Dendrite.

Increased marketing of the offers is likely to build awareness. Even for consumers who aren't generally coupon clippers, these offers might be worth a second look.

They might also warrant a second thought -- the savings may not actually add up.

More companies have begun to create enticements for particular brand-name drugs, partly in response to a growing number of lower-cost generic versions, says Carl Cohen, president of marketing solutions for Cegedim Dendrite, a market research firm that looks at efforts by drug companies to promote drugs to consumers. For example, Lipitor, the top-selling cholesterol-lowering drug, whose competitor, Zocor, lost its patent last summer, now has a variety of company-sponsored price cuts on its site, Lipitor.com. And of the five top-selling prescription drugs in 2006, ranked by trade publication MedADNews, three offer discount coupons.

Meanwhile, prescription coupon sites such as Optimizerx .com and Internetdrugcoupons .com, launched in July, are making it easier to find the offers. A third site, Reduceprescription costs.com, has coupon links and other tips for saving money on drugs. And some general coupon sites, such as fatwallet.com, have been adding drug coupon links as well.

By and large, the three main drug coupon sites have similar offers, though a recent check found coupons for osteoporosis drug Actonel on the first two, but not the third. And of those sites, Optimizerx is the only one to bombard users with ads. A click on a Lipitor offer, for example, also launched ads for eHealth insurance, pet medicines, drugs from Canada and a natural way to lower your cholesterol.

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Where to find them

Looking for offers? Pharmacies often have tear sheets on a bulletin board near the pharmacy or the main door. Doctors' offices may have additional information, though those deals are sometimes available only through a physician. And a drug's website usually posts such information prominently. For example, Advair, an asthma drug, offers a free prescription on its site via a message to "click here for savings."

Some offers require a bit more searching to find, such as for Diovan, a blood pressure drug. People who visit that site need to know to click on the "BP [blood pressure] Success Zone Program" link, and then search further under "program benefits." The Internet coupon sites typically do the searching for you. Click "Diovan" on Internetdrugcoupons.com, and the site explains how to get the discount offer.

Although the average grocery coupon has a face value of $1.02, according to CMS, drug offers can run far higher. Recent ones have included up to a $20 rebate on a one-month prescription of the overactive-bladder drug Detrol LA, a voucher for a seven-day supply of the sleeping pill Ambien (retail price, $35 at drugstore.com) and a free one-month supply of three breast cancer drugs.

That doesn't mean consumers should jump at every money-saving offer.

People being treated for a specific condition may not actually receive better care if they switch from their current medication to a new one simply because of a $10-off coupon. And, especially if the coupon is for one time only, the new drug could cost more in the long run.

Reading the fine print is crucial, says Matthew Tilley, head of marketing at CMS. Drug coupons cannot be used by people insured by most federal and state insurance plans such as Medicare and Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), because the federal and state governments consider coupons a kickback to consumers. However, programs that involve no money back, such as free trials, are often allowed.

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