CVS does it. Walgreens does it. Now Amazon is getting in on the act. They’re all dispensing drugs by mail.
With nearly 60 percent of American adults taking at least one prescription drug, odds are your health insurer has steered you toward a mail-order pharmacy. And if they haven’t, they probably will soon.
“It’s all about convenience. You don’t have to leave home or wait in long lines. Plus, it’s easy to get all your medication refilled and shipped at one time and is usually more affordable,” said Mohamed Jalloh, a pharmacist and the official spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association.
Don’t confuse mail-order pharmacies with sketchy discount internet storefronts or foreign-based suppliers. These are pharmacy benefits-management companies that health insurers contract with to lower costs by negotiating discounts and rebates directly with drug manufacturers and wholesalers.
The concept isn’t new. As early as the mid-1970s, the Veterans Administration, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs, operated regional pharmacies where prescriptions were filled and mailed to patients. Now, more than 1.5 million veterans receive prescriptions in the mail every week.
Don’t worry: There aren’t any R2-D2s filling prescriptions without human supervision. Although automation has taken over many tasks, thousands of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians work at the outlets.
“Whether it’s a retail store or mail order, a licensed pharmacist physically checks every prescription before it goes to the recipient. It’s the law,” said Albert Wertheimer, professor of social and administrative pharmacy at Touro College in New York City.
The mail-order facilities are licensed like any other pharmacy, said Amy Gutierrez, senior vice president and chief pharmacy officer for Kaiser Permanente hospitals. “The only difference is we have a much larger staff and a higher volume.”
Thinking about signing up for prescriptions by mail? First, understand your drug benefits. Contact your health insurance provider and have them explain not only your plan’s coverage but any price difference. Then, consider these other factors.
Mail order may be for you if:
• You are looking to save time. There’s no more driving to a pharmacy and standing in line waiting to pick up a refill. Even in crummy weather, your medications come to your door.
• You have a chronic illness. Those with gout, diabetes, arthritis or other diseases requiring long-term maintenance medications can order a 90-day supply. Not only does this mean fewer visits to the pharmacy, but most insurers give you a discount. “Instead of that usual copay for a 30-day supply at your local pharmacy, you can get three months for the price of one or two copays,” Wertheimer said.
• You often forget to order or pick up refills. Mail-order pharmacies offer an automatic refill option, in which they charge your credit card on file and mail your medication before you run out. They’ll even contact your physician annually to renew your prescription.
• You want someone always on call. Have a question or concern? Most suppliers have a team of pharmacists available 24/7 every day of the year to talk to you on the phone.
It might not be for you if:
• You need a medication quickly. If your physician prescribes an antibiotic or antiviral that you need to start immediately, it’s best to head to your local pharmacy.
• You take a compounded medication. Few mail-order pharmacies produce customized, made-to-order medicines.
• You worry about package theft. Although mail-order pharmacies will typically resend your order at no cost, the loss could mean that you are without medication briefly.
• You like the personal touch. Many of us forget that pharmacists are medical professionals with at least six years of specialized study. Whether you need advice on the best over-the-counter medicine for a runny nose or which vaccinations are required for an overseas trip, a community pharmacist can help. And face it, a mail-order pharmacy can’t give you a flu shot.