8 Ways to Reduce Your Cancer Drug Costs

Patient Expert

Cancer is expensive! Even people with good insurance can find costs running higher than they expected. One problem is the high cost of cancer treatment drugs. How can you keep these expenses in line? Here are eight ways you can reduce the cost and ease your financial burden.

  1. Let your doctor know that you are concerned about costs. Of course, you want the most effective medicine. However, sometimes an older drug works just as well as a newer one at a much lower price. Sometimes a shorter course of a treatment can be effective. A study led by Caroline Clarke, Ph.D., of University College London in the United Kingdom found that nine weeks of trastuzumab (Herceptin) for women with early stage HER2 positive breast cancer appeared to be as effective as the more typical 12 month course of treatment. The results are still preliminary, but a shorter course of this drug could reduce heart-related side effects and save money. When you remind your doctors that you need to keep your expenses in line, they may be able to find less expensive options for you that will not compromise your health.

  2. Understand how your insurance works. Read all the fine print in your policy and sit down with someone to explain it to you. The hospital social worker or oncologist's business office personnel can help you understand the details of your policy. Do all prescriptions count toward your deductible? Are medicines you receive in an IV in the doctor’s office or hospital covered the same way as chemotherapies that you can take in pill form at home? In some states the cost of an oral chemo can be thousands of dollars after insurance compared to an office copay for a similar medication delivered intravenously in the doctor’s office. Some states have passed oral parity laws that require insurance companies to treat both types of chemo comparably. If your state is not one of them, going with the IV might be more inconvenient, but much less expensive.If you have already met your deductible for the year, you may be able to time treatments or prescription refills so that you don’t have to start all over toward a new deductible.

  1. Ask about samples. When I was on chemo, there were some new anti-nausea drugs that were extremely expensive. I really appreciated it when my oncologist gave me samples. The doctor also gave me a prescription for a less expensive drug for when the samples ran out. You can’t expect to get samples for a medicine you will need over the long-term, but samples may be able to help reduce your costs.

  2. Be cautious of the drugs you see advertised on television. Of course, your doctor may think that a new drug will be the best for you, but sometimes doctors feel patient pressure to prescribe a highly advertised medicine. I take a generic drug for my neuropathy. When I was talking to my neurologist, I asked about a newer drug I had seen advertised. He said that sometimes he will prescribe it if a patient isn’t getting good results from the older drug I take. However, he has had similar results from both, and the newer drug is much more expensive.

  3. Try small quantities of new drugs. Typically doctors write prescriptions for thirty days. But sometimes a patient needs to discontinue a drug because of side effects or an allergic reaction. For example, if your doctor wants you to talk a follow-up hormonal drug like anastrozole (Arimidex), ask for the first prescription to be written for a 10-day supply instead of 30 days. If it turns out you can’t take it for any reason, you won’t be stuck with expensive medicine you can’t use. It is illegal to transfer medicine to another person, even if she has a prescription for it, and the pharmacy can’t take it back. Doctors are beginning to realize that they should prescribe a shorter course of pain medication after surgery. I recently threw out the remains of several expired prescriptions that I needed only for a few days even though I had been given many more. You do need to take the entire course of antibiotic prescriptions unless you have some sort of allergic reaction, which you would need to discuss with your doctor.

  1. Apply for a drug company’s patient assistance program. Most drug companies have programs that help people who can’t afford their drugs. These patient assistance programs vary from company to company. Usually you will need to provide proof of your income and other financial details to get the medicine for free or at a reduced price. Your nurse navigator or hospital social worker can help you apply, or you can call the pharmaceutical company directly for information.

  2. Never reduce the dose or stop taking a drug without talking to your doctor. All too often we see news stories about people who are making decisions about whether to buy groceries or medicine. Sometimes they cope by taking their pills every other day. Sometimes they just don’t tell the doctor that they have stopped a medicine because they can’t afford it. Both of these strategies can be dangerous. It may be embarrassing to tell the doctor that you aren’t taking a pill because you don’t have enough money. However, you need to get over your embarrassment and speak up. The doctor can help you find the best way to receive the medicine you need.

  1. Keep accurate records of your expenses. You may be eligible for a tax deduction if your medical expenses exceed a certain amount of your adjusted gross income. However, to take advantage of this, or other benefits, you will need to be able to document your costs.

As patients, we all need to try to keep medical costs down. Even if you aren’t paying out of pocket because your insurance pays for almost everything, your premium is based on what the insurance company pays in benefits. In these days of rising premiums, we all need to be cost conscious.

Cancer drugs have improved the survival rate from the bad old days when the only way to treat cancer was to cut it out. We can be thankful for all our new options that have brought us longer life.

See more helpful articles:

Five Tips to Avoid Cancer’s Financial Toxicity

New Drug Approved to Fight Chemo-Induced Nausea

Making a Medication List