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The sticker shock on some medicines can be staggering, especially without insurance. But Amazon and Walmart are engaging in a price war for prescriptions. And the drug discount card networks they are leveraging may be well worth your consideration.
Amazon Pharmacy offers six-month supplies of select prescription meds for as low as $6 to Prime members. Meanwhile, Walmart+, the retailer's membership program launched in September 2020, offers medications at zero cost.
How much money can you save? And how do you trigger the discounts? Here’s how to tell if it’s worth side-stepping your insurance plan and buying some meds directly.
How much can you save on prescriptions?
Prescription savings will require membership with either retailer. That's an annual fee of $119 for Amazon Prime or $98 for Walmart+, plus applicable taxes.
"The Amazon Prime prescription savings benefit saves members up to 80% off generic and 40% off brand name medications when paying without insurance. It is included with the Prime membership at no additional cost," Jacquelyn Miller, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an email response.
Meanwhile, Walmart+ members can get select medications at no cost, and "thousands of additional prescription medications" have discounts of up to 85%, the retailer said in a press release.
The Walmart program includes the "most commonly prescribed medications," the company said, for numerous chronic ailments, including heart and mental health conditions, diabetes, allergies and antibiotics for bacterial infections.
How the Amazon and Walmart drug discounts work
The nation's two largest retailers aren't totally disrupting the pharmaceutical industry — yet. The Amazon and Walmart programs are built on the foundation of existing discount card networks, Express Scripts’ Inside Rx and MedImpact's America's Pharmacy, respectively. You may have heard of other companies such as GoodRx and Blink Health, which use similar models.
Any of these discount channels can offer savings on meds. However, if you have a prescription plan through insurance, you'll also want to consider your deductible.
Do you need to order six-month supplies to get the best price?
Amazon Prime members will find some medications are available starting at $1 per month when ordering six-month supplies. Customers can compare the price per month for 30- or 90-day supplies as well, and then compare that to their insurance copay cost.
Walmart+ hasn't promoted six-month prescriptions and typically offers 30- and 60-day options. You share your digital pharmacy savings card information with a pharmacist who will work with you to compare savings options on varying supplies.
Can you combine the discounts with insurance coverage?
No. The prescription savings cards are not insurance and can't be combined with insurance. However, you can always opt to use the discount programs rather than your insurance, if a drug price is less than your copay.
Once you enter the prescription and your insurance information, the Amazon service offers an insurance copay lookup tool so you can compare that to the discount price on a particular prescription.
'Zillow for health care'
Thanks to online services such as Zillow and Autotrader, it seems easier to shop for a home or a car than prescriptions.
"We need that for health care," says Mark D. Peters II of Flemington, New Jersey, a Doctor of Pharmacy and vice president at nonprofit CancerCare.
The reason there is little transparency in the pricing for medications, and health care as a whole, is a tangled web of providers, Peters says.
Pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs — such as Express Scripts, OptumRx and CVS Health — are a part of the complicated prescription supply chain. PBMs, a bridge between drug manufacturers, wholesalers, health insurers, pharmacies and large employers, build a list of approved drugs, called a formulary.
"Sometimes, not always, but sometimes this list of medicines is based on the best deal that they can get from the pharmaceutical company. So the PBMs are making all this money and sometimes they pass it forward to the patient, many times they've not," Peters says.
Typically, drug wholesalers also take a portion of the profit. And a tiny sliver is usually taken by the retail pharmacist.
How to save on prescriptions: shop around
Peters believes the services provided by retailing mammoths Amazon and Walmart are worth exploring.
"When you look at the diseases most people have, the chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, depression — almost all of that can be managed by generics that the Amazons and the Walmarts of the world have."
Though he offers a caveat: "You have to shop around. Check out the pricing on Amazon and check out the pricing on Walmart, just like you would for any product."
NerdWallet priced some of the most-prescribed drugs in the U.S., comparing the same strength and tablet quantity in 90-day refills on both Amazon and Walmart+. We found a meager difference of just cents on some prescriptions, but a more substantial difference of dollars on others.
More proof that it pays to compare prices.
Are these prescription drug discounts better than insurance?
"Insurance and prescription benefit plans vary widely, so it’s hard to make an overarching statement about how this compares to insurance," Amazon's Miller said. "In some cases, the price for a medication, either before or after savings, may be less than an insurance copay."
In fact, Peters has found that to be the case with a prescription of his own. He has a generic drug prescription that costs him a $5 copay through his insurance. But the price without using insurance is even less.