5 Things to Consider Before Using a Mail Order Pharmacy

Elizabeth Davis
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Hoping to save a few bucks on your prescription? Trying to avoid a trip to the drugstore? If so, maybe you’ve considered getting your meds through your insurance company’s mail-order pharmacy.

More than one-third of respondents in a 2013 Consumer Reports survey got at least some of their prescriptions through a mail-order pharmacy during the previous year. But while mail order can be a good option for some, it can also be a hassle, and savings aren’t guaranteed.

GoodRx sat down with Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs to answer five common questions about when mail order makes the most sense—and when you should stick with a walk-in pharmacy.

GoodRx: How do mail order pharmacies work?

Best Buy Drugs: Most mail order programs operate through your insurer’s pharmacy benefit manager, or PBM. These companies often have exclusive rights to provide mail order pharmacy services to members of that plan. If you use other mail order services, you may not receive coverage from your health plan.

You can sign up for mail order by sending in your insurer’s mail-order form with your prescription, or having your doctor phone or fax it in. You can usually submit refills online, over the phone, or through a mobile app.

Since it can take up to two weeks to receive your medications through the mail, you may want to ask your doctor for two prescriptions, one to be filled right away at your local pharmacy, and one for your mail-order supply.

Keep in mind that some health plans will require you to switch to mail order after a few fills if you want to receive coverage.

GoodRx: How do I know if mail-order pharmacy is right for me?

BBD: If you’d like your prescriptions delivered to you rather than having to pick them up at the drugstore, mail order may seem like a no-brainer.

Depending on your insurer, discounts can also be significant—particularly when it comes to certain generic medications that you take regularly for chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. For those meds, you may be able to order a three-month supply of some drugs for a co-payment of just a few dollars, or even $0 in some cases, including free shipping.

But before signing up, you’ll want to make sure you’ll benefit. That means comparing what your insurer’s mail-order pharmacy will charge (including shipping) with your local pharmacy’s prices.

Many insurance companies are now offering 90-day fills at local pharmacies for similar prices to mail order. For example, if Caremark is your PBM, you can purchase 90-day fills at a CVS for the same price as mail order. If Express Scripts or Optum is your PBM, you can purchase 90-day fills at Walgreens. Check with your individual health plan to see where you can get 90-day fills at the best rates.

GoodRx: How is my insurance plan’s mail-order pharmacy different from an online pharmacy?

BBD: It’s easy to confuse mail-order pharmacies and online pharmacies, but the only similarity is that both ship medicines directly to your home. Mail-order pharmacies operate through your health plan, and require that you have one particular kind of insurance, while online pharmacies tend to operate like an online drugstore and may or may not accept your insurance.

In some cases, your health plan will only provide coverage if you use their mail order pharmacy.

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GoodRx: When should I stick to my local retail pharmacy?

BBD: If your medications are reasonably priced through your local retail pharmacy, you have a good relationship with your pharmacist, and are happy with your service, there may be no need to change.

Many chain and big-box stores offer generics at deeply discounted prices without insurance. Kmart, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, and Walmart, for example, offer a 90-day supply of dozens of generics for only $10 (though in some cases, there might be annual membership fees.)

Since mail-order programs typically ship a 90-day supply of your meds at a time, mail order may not be feasible for drugs you need immediately or that you take briefly, for example medications you’ve been prescribed post-surgery, or antibiotics for an infection.

Finally, mail order pharmacies have pharmacists on staff ready to assist you and answer questions, but if you prefer a more personal, face-to-face relationship with a pharmacist, stick with a walk-in pharmacy.

GoodRx: What are the downsides to using a mail order pharmacy?

BBD: First and foremost, errors in communication.

For instance, medications may not always arrive on time, which can be dangerous for people who rely on lifesaving drugs. To avoid delays, make sure you set up orders online or over the phone at least two weeks before you’ll run out if you don’t have automatic refills.

The opposite problem can happen too. Mail order pharmacies might auto-renew your prescriptions without confirming you’re still taking a drug or whether your dosage has changed.

Luckily, Medicare Part D drug plans require mail order pharmacies to get the okay from a patient or caregiver before shipping a new prescription or refill.

Also, with any type of delivery service, there’s also the chance your package could be lost, stolen or damaged in the mail. Mail-order programs will try to prevent that by using protective packaging, but in the event that your medications are damaged or lost, call your pharmacy’s 1-800 number immediately for a replacement.

And a final safety note: If you get medications via mail order and other prescriptions you need occasionally at a walk-in pharmacy, be sure to let each pharmacy know about all of the medications you’re taking and update them regularly about any changes, so your pharmacist can alert you to possible drug interactions.

Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs is a public education project dedicated to helping you talk to your doctor about prescription drugs and helping you find the most effective and safest drugs for the best price.

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