Susan Tompor: Can free discount cards really offer prescription savings?

Many consumers are looking for a quick-fix to the high-cost of prescription drugs. But can you really expect all that much from paper discount cards that pop up in the mail?

"Save up to 75 percent on your prescriptions instantly," reads the back of the free card from American Prescription Discounts.

Really? Well, make sure you understand the small print and recognize that we're not talking about 75 percent off your co-pay.

Ruby Edwards, staff pharmacist at an independent pharmacy in Detroit, dubs the cards: "Kind of misleading."

She cautioned that the discounts promoted on the cards often "do say 'up to.'"


Some cards proclaim discounts of up to 75 percent or up to 90 percent. But often, Edwards said, the consumer does not get those kind of discounts and can get a better deal through the independent pharmacy itself.

She's seen cases where discounts can be 10 percent or less, compared with other programs.

To get more insight into how the cards can work, I took one of my family's prescriptions to two different stores.

One pharmacist told me that we couldn't do better than the $93.99 we already were saving with insurance with $20 out-of-pocket costs.

She wouldn't compare what the prescription would cost under the American Prescription Discounts plan. Neither would another pharmacist at another store. Both said the discount cards work better for those without insurance. One pharmacist told me we might want to save the card in case some medication in the future would not be covered by insurance.

Obviously, most consumers would like to comparison shop discount cards and insurance programs. But many pharmacists are not going to compare prices and run all the numbers for you, warned Edgar Dworsky, founder of

Dworsky did a comparison shopping test involving discount cards in 2012 and discovered that it's not easy to shop because many pharmacists cannot easily ring up the different discounts off a cash price.

Dworky's study did find discounts ranging from 11 percent to 27 percent in some cases.


His advice: Compare prices at more than one store. Go at a time when the drug store is not busy. It is also wise to use the card's online price checking feature to get a rough idea of what a local pharmacy might charge.

Understand that the same drug can have a different cash price at a suburban or urban store within the same chain. The discount cards offer a discount off a cash price, so it's important to start with a lower cash price.

Cash prices can change over time as well.

"You would think a drug price would be pretty stable but it is not," said Richard Sagall, president of, a website that gives information on low-cost options and has its own free discount card.

Drug A might be less expensive at one store but drug B could be less expensive at another. Some studies have shown that Costco has favorable cash prices and one doesn't have to be a Costco member to use the pharmacy, Dworsky said.

The No. 1 piece of advice is not to pay any extra fees for a drug discount card, according to consumer advocates.

Various free discount cards are available, such as prescription discount cards for AARP members and AAA members.

Also take time to understand the various discount cards and the rules.


If you go online to, for example, you discover that the program does not add benefits if you already have insurance coverage.

"Our program is not designed to add discounts to a benefit you are already receiving from your current provider, nor is it designed to reduce your co-pay," the American Prescription Discounts website says.

The site also noted that many insurance companies might not cover some medications that could qualify for discounts under the American Prescription Discounts program.

American Prescription Discounts is a subsidiary of New York-based ScriptRelief LLC, which has issued cards under different names and makes money when the card is used.

HalfOffx RX is part of ScriptRelief family of discount cards, as well as the Healthcare Alliance Card, the National Prescription Savings Network Card and the website

No registration is required to use the card and no fees are charged.

The company maintains that it has helped nearly 7.5 million Americans save more than $750 million on prescription medications.

Savings vary, the company said, but said some people do save up to 75 percent based on the "usual and customary amount" that a cardholder otherwise would have paid without a discount card or without an insurance card.


"The average cardholder saves nearly $16 per prescription," the company said in a statement.

"It's important to note that in 2014, the ScriptRelief family of pharmacy discount cards delivered savings of more than $800,000 to cardholders in greater Detroit," the company said.

But the Better Business Bureau gives ScriptRelief a C-minus grade on a scale of A-Plus to F.

The BBB noted that some consumers thought that earlier names for such cards sounded like they were part of an official government program or part of the Affordable Care Act.

A recent letter with the mailing for American Prescription Discounts states in bold that the card is not insurance nor is it affiliated with the U.S. government.

The letter suggests you'd want a pharmacist to provide a price check to see what price is lower, as well.

Over the years, the Federal Trade Commission has taken action against various prescription drug card programs. About five years ago, the FTC took action involving a bogus online pharmacy that sold "membership packages" to elderly consumers.

In 2013, the FTC charged AFD Medical Advisors in a telemarketing scheme that convinced older consumers to pay $299 for a discount card for prescription drugs.


But the people who were targeted already had Medicare and other insurance and would see little or no benefit from the cards.

The FTC warns in general that a discount plan can offer no "discount" at all in some cases, particularly if monthly premiums and enrollment fees are involved.

No doubt, comparison shopping prescription drug prices won't be as easy as finding the lowest price on a gallon of gas. But some consumers, particularly those without prescription drug coverage, can save some money by doing their homework.

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