| Wed, Nov 05, 2014 @ 09:00 AM

Ask a Pharmacist: Mail-Order Pharmacies

Posted by Medicare Made Clear

mail order pharmacies

Information about your medications from UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement Chief Pharmacy Officer Mike Anderson, Pharm.D.

Question: I’m thinking about ordering my prescription medications through a mail-order pharmacy. Is this a good idea?

Answer: We briefly touched on using mail-order pharmacies in a couple of our earlier “Ask a Pharmacist” articles, including one on saving money on your prescription drugs. The fact is that mail-order pharmacies are becoming more and more common. In fact, the American Journal of Managed Care reports that up to one-third of medications for chronic conditions (like heart disease or diabetes) are delivered by mail.

Mail-order pharmacies are exactly what they sound like: Remote pharmacies that fill your prescription from a central operations center and ship it back to you, usually via the USPS mail or another service, like UPS or FedEx. They tend to work well for “maintenance medications,” those medications you take on an ongoing basis (e.g., every day) for an extended period of time. Mail-order prescription refills also tend to be given for a longer period, like 90 days, as opposed to the more traditional 30-day refill from your local pharmacy.

Here are a few reasons you may want to use a mail-order pharmacy to fill your maintenance medications:

1. Cost-savings. Mail-order pharmacies usually offer some kind of discount on your prescription copay. For example, one common scenario is that you receive a three-month supply of your medication while paying a copay equivalent to only two months’ supply.

2. Convenience. Getting your prescription filled for 90 days rather than only 30 days could mean less worry for you about filling your medications. It can be easier to get your medicine at your mailbox instead of needing to drive to a pharmacy every month. And many mail-order pharmacies offer various refill reminders, and can help coordinate with your doctor when it’s time for a refill.

3. Medication adherence. As we discussed in a previous blog post, “medication adherence” is the clinical term that means that you take your medication as prescribed by your doctor: the right dosage for you at the right time. Because using a mail-order pharmacy could mean that you’re less likely to forget to refill or pick up your meds, it may help you take your medication more faithfully. And that could have a big effect on your overall health, possibly helping you avoid health complications and hospital visits.

Although mail-order pharmacies can have several benefits, they can’t replace your regular local pharmacy altogether. Here are some instances in which you’ll probably want to continue to use your regular pharmacy to fill prescriptions:

You only need the medication quickly, or for a short time. For a prescription you need filled right away, or one that you need only short-term, your local pharmacy is probably a better bet. Some examples of these types of medications include antibiotics for a sinus infection, or a urinary tract infection

Your medication is new. It’s best to order your first fill of a new medication at your local pharmacy. If you’re trying a new medication for a health condition like migraines or allergies, there’s sometimes some trial-and-error involved. Once you know you can tolerate the new medication, and that your doctor wants you to stay on it long term, then using mail order may be a good choice. Check with your doctor to see if you should undergo a trial medication period.

You and your doctor are still figuring out medication and dosage. For certain types of medications, like those used to treat depression and pain, your doctor may be inclined to start with lower dosage and increase it only if necessary. You may want to wait to make sure you have the right medication at the right dosage for you before going through a mail-order service.

How do you find the right mail-order pharmacy for you? If you have Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, either through a Medicare Advantage (Part C) plan or a standalone Part D plan, the private health insurance company that provides your coverage probably has a contract with a particular mail-order pharmaceutical company. Make sure to check your plan benefit documents or website for more information.

Medicare Open Enrollment for 2015 is going on now, ending December 7, 2014. If you’re evaluating your Medicare Part D coverage and comparing Part C or Part D plans, make sure you look into mail-order pharmacy options offered by the health care company offering the plan. Here are some of the benefits you may want to check for in a mail-order pharmacy:

  • Does the mail-order pharmacy you’re looking at supply your maintenance medication(s)? This can sometimes be an issue if you’re using a newer medication, or perhaps a new generic version of a medication that hasn’t become universally available.
  • How do the prescription co-pay costs for your maintenance medication(s) via the mail-order pharmacy compare with what you’re paying for your medications now?
  • Does the mail-order service provide a pharmacist you can talk to over the phone if you have questions? What are the hours during which you can call?
  • Are there safety procedures and guarantees in place for the medication that will be shipped to you?
  • Does the mail-order pharmacy offer free shipping, or are you charged for shipping? Is there a guaranteed shipping speed? How is the medication shipped—through the USPS, or another company?
  • Some mail-order pharmacies can set up helpful reminders to let you know when it’s time to refill a prescription, either via a phone call, email message, text message or so on. Does the mail-order pharmacy you’re checking do this? Are there any other convenience options offered to you?

If you don’t have Medicare Part D coverage, you can check out larger chain drugstores. Several of them have mail-order services that can coordinate with an in-store pharmacist. There are also mail-order pharmacies that operate exclusively online. Make sure to investigate those companies carefully, as some may not be as reputable as others. Check with an organization like the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which verifies online pharmacies for consumers.

This Medicare Made Clear blog post is part of the ongoing “Ask a Pharmacist” series, which addresses common questions about prescription drugs and other medications. Read other articles in this series for more answers to your questions on medication.

For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.

Source: American Journal of Managed Care, 2013.


Medicare Part D Coverage – Prescription Drug Plans: Check out this section of the Medicare Made Clear website, complete with a video on Part D.

Things to think about when you compare Medicare drug coverage: A short publication from Medicare.gov designed to help you choose the prescription drug coverage that’s right for you.


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