June 19, 2018
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Free Rx drug card promises Mainers healthy discounts

By Jackie Farwell, BDN Staff

A free pharmacy discount card officially launched in Maine on Tuesday promises consumers steep discounts on prescription drugs.

The Maine Rx Card aims to help both uninsured and insured residents nab savings averaging 30 percent on prescription medications at local pharmacies. The card, free and open to all regardless of age or income, offers perks, but one expert in the field advises consumers to approach such cards with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The Maine Rx Card has been available in Maine for two years, but the program is just now stepping up efforts to get the word out by partnering with the Maine Medical Association, said Alix Cousins of Maine Rx Card.

The program’s website boasts savings of up to 75 percent at more than 56,000 pharmacies nationwide, including CVS, Hannaford, Target, Walgreens and many others.

What’s the catch?

“There is no catch,” Cousins said. “It’s actually funded through the participation of pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies. That’s why it’s available free to the public. It’s not funded by taxpayer dollars, there’s no applications or restrictions, anyone can use it.”

Like the many other drug discount cards on the market, the Maine Rx Card is backed by a company known as a “pharmacy benefits manager” that negotiates discounts with participating pharmacies. The discounts can vary from medication to medication.

Pharmacy benefits managers enlist other organizations to market their card. For Maine Rx Card, that’s United Networks of America, a Louisiana company operating similar programs in all 50 states, and the Maine Medical Association, which represents physicians and medical students.

The pharmacy benefits manager behind Maine Rx Card, Milwaukee-based Restat, stands out for its pledge not to sell consumers’ information to marketers, Cousins said.

“If someone picks up another card that they get in the mail and it’s not a Maine Rx Card, chances are their personal information is going to be sold to solicitors,” she said.

Some card marketers collect users’ names and addresses and target them with advertising based on their prescription history, explained Dr. Richard Sagall, founder of NeedyMeds, a Gloucester, Mass.-based nonprofit that offers its own drug discount card. A patient who fills a prescription for insulin, for example, might start getting ads for diabetic supplies, he said.

Besides selling consumers’ personal information, some card marketers make money by earning a transaction fee every time a card is used, according to Sagall. The pharmacy benefits manager and the pharmacies also earn fees.

The Maine Rx Card keeps transaction fees lower by running a web-based business free of brick-and-mortar overhead costs, Cousins said. The Maine Medical Association is compensated for its work marketing the card, she said.

“With this free program, patients without insurance, those carrying a high deductible, or anyone paying full price for a prescription will no longer have to pay the highest price for their medication,” Gordon Smith, Maine Medical Association executive vice president, said in a press release announcing the card’s launch. “We recommend that these patients acquire the card and start receiving savings immediately.”

What’s in it for the pharmacy selling a $200 drug for $125? The pharmacy still earns a profit even at the discounted price, sells a prescription to a new customer who couldn’t otherwise afford the drug, builds customer loyalty, keeps business it could lose to competitors by not offering the card, and gets a chance to tempt the card user with non-pharmacy items, such as candy or cosmetics, according to Sagall.

The transaction fees are built into the prices patients ultimately pay at the pharmacy counter, said Sagall, who formerly practiced at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

“If the card marketer is making money and the Maine Medical Association is making money, then the patient pays for it,” he said. “It definitely pays to shop around with cards. Pharmacies don’t like it, but you may want to bring a couple of cards in and see who gives the best discount.”

Discounts may vary from pharmacy to pharmacy and even from month to month, he said. Find the card that seems to work best for you on the whole, Sagall said. Drug discount cards can provide real savings, just do your homework, he said.

“Like anything else, it’s buyer beware and shop around,” he said.

The Maine Rx Card is not health insurance or related to national health care reform, Cousins noted. It’s also not affiliated with state government, unlike a similar-sounding program called Maine Rx Plus sponsored by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Maine residents can obtain a free card, search drug pricing and locate participating pharmacies by visiting www.MaineRxCard.com. The cards also will be available at health centers, hospitals, clinics and other sites being set up across the state. Consumers may also call Maine Rx Card at 504-5370.

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