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Why Free Drug Samples May Be Too Expensive


Updated March 31, 2009

You go to the doctor, get a diagnosis, he writes a prescription, and provides you with a few free drug samples to get you started or to tide you over until you can fill the prescription. Those drug samples seem like a great idea.

Why? Because they save you money and provide you with an opportunity to try the drug to be sure you don't have a bad reaction.

What can be bad or expensive about that? Maybe nothing. And maybe everything.

Samples of drugs are given to doctors to give to their patients -- all for free. They are provided by the drug manufacturers. The samples are always branded drugs, not generics.

Drug manufacturers offer free samples for the same reasons free samples are offered for anything else; if you try it and like it, you'll develop a "brand preference" and you'll keep purchasing that brand, just like when you sample a chunk of cheese or a frozen treat in a supermarket. Of course, in this case the doctor is the one providing the free sample to you. The drug manufacturer who provided it hopes that the doctor will then prescribe that brand of drug, too. Of course, that's what usually happens.

When is a free sample of a drug a good idea? If you have an acute medical problem, meaning something that won't last more than a few days or weeks before you are cured, then drug samples can be very helpful for saving you money and determining how well you tolerate the drug.

But if you have a longer-term medical problem, one that will last more than a few months or even the rest of your life, that free sample may be setting you up for a major expense for that extended period of time.

Here's how:

Say your doctor prescribes Drug L for you to take for the rest of your life. Drug L is found on Tier III of your insurance company's formulary, and this year, Tier III drugs cost you $45 per month.

So your doctor gives you the first month's worth of the prescription for free, saving you $45. But over the next year, you will have spent $495 for that drug (11 remaining months times $45 per month.) In year number two, that drug will cost you $540 (12 months times $45 per month), assuming the cost for your Tier III drugs doesn't go even higher.

However, if the kind of drug you need comes in a generic form, you will save much more money than that free month of a brand name drug would cost. A generic drug will be a Tier I drug. So,say your tier one co-pay is $15 per month. At the end of the first year, you will have spent $180 for that drug (12 months times $15 per month.)

Extending the math: that free sample has now cost you an extra $315 in the first year, and at least $360 for subsequent years. Multiply those numbers by the number of years you will take that drug... it may cost you thousands of dollars extra over a lifetime. Put another way, a less expensive drug may save you those thousands.

If you don't have health insurance, the cost variations will be even larger.

There are ways to save money when it comes time to purchase the drugs we need. A wise patient will include that calculation of sample drugs as she makes her decisions on the best way to manage the cost of her drugs.

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