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6 things you don’t want to hear about prescription drugs

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Some of the most alarming facts have nothing to do with side effects.

1. If you’re using them, you’re probably paying too much

There’s just no good reason to pay full price for a prescription medication, whether you have health insurance or not. You should always check around between pharmacies to see which one is cheapest, rather than going to one nearby or in your regular grocery store—prices can vary dramatically. Pharmaceutical companies usually offer coupons or copay assistance programs for pricey brand name drugs, and pharmacists often have additional in-house coupons.

Perhaps the easiest way to save on drugs is to get a universal drug discount card that works at most pharmacies for a number of prescription drugs. A popular example is the FamilyWize.org card, which works at 61,000 pharmacies nationwide for people with or without insurance. “Statistics show that the majority of American families struggle to pay for their prescriptions,” said Dan Barnes, president and CEO of FamilyWize. The free card “can lower medication costs on average of 40 percentand up to 75%, depending on the medication,” he added.

READ MORE: How to Find Help Lowering Your Medical Bills

2. There could be 40 additional generics on the market…

…if not for the abuse of programs created to protect consumers. Brand name drug manufacturers are supposed to provide their drugs to generic manufacturers at market cost once the brand name drug has been on the market 3-7 years and generic competition is allowed. Pharmaceutical companies are citing programs called REMS (risk evaluation and mitigation strategies) set in place by the Food and Drug Administration to block generics companies from obtaining 16 brand name drugs now eligible for generic release otherwise. Another 24 drugs are blocked by internal REMS programs, which are self-imposed by the pharma companies themselves rather than the FDA.

This is according to a study released last month by the Generics Pharmaceutical Association, which calls the blockage of these 40 drugs an abuse of policies meant to protect safety. The study surveyed eight generic drug manufacturers and estimated the lost savings due to the drugs’ blockage. The estimated lost savings were $140 million for every $1 billion spent on brand name drugs—a total of $5.4 billion in potential savings per year.

READ MORE: How to Get Cheap Prescription Drugs

3. Consumers aren’t the only ones wasting money on drugs

Whenever you’re wasting money on health care, so is your insurance provider, whether it’s a private company, Medicaid or Medicare. If you find it hard to be sympathetic to that angle, consider that whenever your insurer pays more, premiums (or government spending) tend to go up. So in a way, as long as drug prices go up, you pay twice—everyone does. This isn’t true with most industries, and medical expenditures are a big portion of the federal budget—about 22 percentin 2013.

READ MORE: 5 Reasons Your Health Insurance Will Deny Your Medical Bill

4. The drug market was worth $337 billion in 2012

That’s about 12 percent of the total health care market, which includes the cost of hospital stays and doctors’ fees across the nation. This is according to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations in their 2013 report. It’s important to note that pharmaceutical companies bring in so much is because of the huge amount they must spend on research and development of their products. Clinical research for each pharmaceutical drug can take over a decade and cost billions of dollars before the drug can even be sold to the public with a prescription. Recouping that hefty cost is part of the reason revenue for pharma companies is so high.

5. You might not need all the drugs you’re taking

Doctors usually have the best intentions in mind when prescribing medications, but in many cases they’re not necessary. Oftentimes, changes can be made in your diet or lifestyle instead of taking costly prescription meds. This is especially true if the drugs are for high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which three of the five most commonly prescribed medications are. If you and your doctor communicate in an open and honest way, you may be aware of this and have a plan to transition off drugs, but if not it’s OK to ask. Through diet and exercise, you may be able to lower your dosage or quit your meds entirely, and save a lifetime of costs in the process.

READ MORE: The Most Commonly Prescribed Medications

6. Abuse rates are higher than you might think

Prescription painkillers can drastically improve the quality of life for someone with chronic or even temporary pain, but they are also one of the most widely abused substances on the market. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 5.1 million people in the U.S. abused painkillers in 2010 alone. Let’s not forget tranquilizers and stimulants, which were abused by 2.2 million and 1.1 million people, respectively.

NIDA also estimates that 52 million Americans over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lifetimes—that’s about 1 in 5. NIDA also reports that while the U.S. consists of just 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume about 75 percent of all prescriptions worldwide.

Lacie Glover writes for NerdWallet Health, a website that helps people reduce their medical bills