BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Whether a consumer is trying to save money on prescription medication, or access prescription drugs despite rising costs, there are several options, says Rhonda Lacey, Adjunct Professor of Pharmacy Law at the McWhorter School of Pharmacy.
First, Lacey suggests asking your local neighborhood pharmacist whether a generic form of the drug is available.
"Some people have heard about $4 prescription lists; those same prices are available at independent pharmacies as well," Lacey said.
If a generic form is not available, Lacey says drug manufacturers often offer patient assistance programs.
"They understand there are patients who need this product who don't have insurance or other means to obtain it," she explained.
And there are programs offered by nonprofit groups as well:
Partnership for Prescription Assistance connects pharmaceutical companies, doctors and medical professionals, and civic groups "to help low-income, uninsured and underinsured patients get free or nearly free medicines."
NeedyMeds is a non-profit providing free information for people who cannot afford medication and healthcare costs.
RxAssist is an online database of programs offering free or affordable drugs and co-pay assistance programs.
Center for Benefits is run by the National Center on Aging. It provides information about drug assistance programs for low-income seniors and young people with disabilities. It's target audience are organizations helping the end-consumer.
RxOutreach is a non-profit pharmacy working to provide affordable medication.
There is often paperwork to enroll in assistance programs. Lacey encourages all people who may need help completing forms to visit a local pharmacist and ask for assistance.
If a generic is not available and the consumer cannot qualify for an assistance program, the last resort option is ordering a prescription medication online.
"That's what's called the 'internet market' and some of us consider that in many cases to be a rogue market, even though are some legitimate internet sites," said Lacey.
Distinguishing between a legitimate and rogue sites can be tricky, and the stakes are high.
"The majority of the internet sites are illegal. They have not been approved by any regulatory agency, they don't have any regulatory oversight and as such, we can't guarantee the content and quality of the product that's reaching our patient," Lacey explained. "We've seen cases where the content of the tablet can be sawdust, ground up sheet rock, possibly containing glass particles."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimated that 1 in 4 Americans have purchased prescription medication online. That estimate was relied upon by the Government Accountability Office in a 2013 report.
"Relatively high out-of-pocket costs for brand name drugs may fuel a demand among consumers to purchase prescription drugs from rogue internet pharmacies," the report explains.
Sam Morris understands the draw to ordering online. With insurance coverage, he and his wife still spend at least $200 per month on prescription drugs, like necessary blood pressure medication.
When asked whether Morris would be able to afford the drugs without insurance coverage, he said no.
"We'd probably die if it came to that," he said.
Confronted with what Morris says could be a potentially fatal situation, he says they would probably resort to an online pharmacy, where costs are lower.
On the other hand, Dot Smith says she would never order her blood pressure medication from an online pharmacy, "because if they're not here in Alabama or in the United States, they're not FDA approved."
"My concern is their safety," Lacey explained, echoing Smith's concern. "Because here in the U.S., we can verify not only that we've obtained an approved FDA product, we know from the origin of that drug to its transport to a wholesaler to a transport to a pharmacy through laws called track and trace."
But ordering online from pharmacies based overseas sacrifices those protections. That's why the FDA considers the practice illegal.
"In most circumstances, it is illegal for individuals to import drugs into the United States for personal use," the FDA explains in the agency's statement on the issue. "This is because drugs from other countries that are available for purchase by individuals often have not been approved by the FDA for use and sale in the United States."
"They've been lenient to the average citizen in bringing back a 90-day supply for personal use," explained Lacey. "They will let you bring up to a 90-day supply of your maintenance medications, your blood pressure medications, your diabetes medication."
For consumers who can't resist the cost savings offered by online pharmacies, Lacey says, if you're going to order online, at least do it from a site approved by the National Association of the Boards of Pharmacy.
These approved pharmacies comply with standards protecting a customer's rights to privacy, "authentication and security of prescription orders, and adhere to recognized quality assurance policies, and provision of meaningful consultation between customers and pharmacists," explains the National Association of the Boards of Pharmacy.