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New drug card gives prescription discount — for free

POSTED: July 9, 2008 5:01 a.m.

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Imagine a free card that allows you to save money on prescription drugs, and it has no restrictions, no eligibility requirements, no forms to fill out.

Dr. David Westfall, director of District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, said his initial reaction was the same as everyone else’s: It seemed too good to be true.

"I was hesitant. I thought, ‘What’s the catch on this thing?’" he said. "But after research, it seemed legit."

"It" is a prescription discount card offered by Caremark, a pharmacy benefits company, and sponsored by the National Association of Counties.

Hall County officials announced last week that Hall will begin participating in the program, starting in the fall.

"It takes about 10 weeks to get the cards printed," said assistant county manager Phil Sutton. "We’re going to print about 40,000 of them. The Community Service Center will handle the initial distribution."

The cards will also be available at other sites such as libraries, social service agencies and the health department, Sutton said.

He said everyone can have a card, no matter who they are, where they live, or even if they’re in the country illegally.

"The cards are not individualized," he said. "We don’t try to confirm anything, not residency, not address. You don’t even have to talk to a person. Just pick up a card off the rack."

But how does this work? Who pays for offering a discount to anyone who wants it?

"Caremark gets a small rebate on each prescription that’s filled," said Sutton. "They’d like to put the cards in the hands of as many people as possible."

Caremark already has a working relationship with most drugstores, because it’s one of the nation’s leading pharmacy benefits managers. Caremark spokeswoman Christine Cramer said the company negotiates with pharmacies, who agree to offer a discount for the NACo program.

Cramer said Caremark collects "a small fee" from pharmacies for each prescription. She did not know the exact amount of the fee.

"But most pharmacies contract to participate because it draws customers to their stores," she said.

Tom Goodman, spokesman for NACo, said virtually all pharmacies in Hall County, both independents and national chains, have signed up for the program.

"It even covers pet medications, if they are purchased at a pharmacy rather than from a vet," he said.

Goodman said there’s no cost to Hall government, and neither the county nor NACo receive any revenue from the program.

"The county signs a contract with us and Caremark," he said. "The county is responsible for distributing the cards."

Goodman said the program began about three years ago. "So many of our members asked us, ‘Is there anything you can do about the high cost of prescription drugs?’" he said. "We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on it."

Cramer said about 1,025 counties nationwide are currently participating, and their residents have saved about $89 million in drug costs over the past three years.

The amount of the discount varies somewhat, but on average, customers save about 22 percent on each prescription.

The card cannot be used in combination with insurance or any other discount. Sutton said if you have insurance coverage, in most cases you’re still better off using your insurance card.

"You might get (as much as) a 90 percent discount," he said. "So this (NACo card) is not nearly as good as you would get if you have health insurance."

Westfall said if you need a generic drug that’s included in the $4 prescription programs offered at Wal-Mart and several other chains, you should take advantage of that.

"The $4 program at Wal-Mart has been a godsend, as long as there’s a generic that does the job," Westfall said.

Where the NACo card really comes in handy, he said, is when a person needs a brand-name drug and they don’t have insurance, or that particular drug is not covered.

Especially now, with consumers spending so much of their income on food and fuel, it’s almost impossible for some patients to buy medicine.

"Many people can’t afford to fill their prescriptions," Westfall said. "The physician who prescribes it often doesn’t know how much the drug actually costs. That’s been a problem not just at the health department, but at private doctor’s offices."

And even with a NACo discount that slashes about 20 percent off the price, a $200 prescription is still going to cost $160.

"It’s not going to be the end-all and be-all for expensive drugs, by any stretch," said Westfall. "But if it helps even a few people, why not do it?"



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