April 21st, 2008
11:11 AM ET

Seeing the cost of health care firsthand

By Ben Leach
Medical Production Assistant

While studying to become a medical reporter, one of the ways I learned about health care was by working as a pharmacy technician. Under the watchful eyes of the pharmacists, I filled prescriptions and learned about hundreds of prescription drugs and the conditions they treat.  I wasn't expecting to learn so much about prescription insurance plans. 

I recently worked on a series about the cost of health care and I couldn't help but remember how much people spent on their prescription drugs. People needed these drugs to stay healthy, but even with prescription coverage, they were still shelling out a lot of money. In the back of my mind, though, I knew that they didn't have to spend all that cash to get their prescriptions.

Take proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), a class of drugs used to treat acid reflux. Brand-name PPIs such as Nexium and Prevacid can be very expensive. These drugs are slightly different chemically, but they work the same way and treat the same conditions. The problem is that prescription drug plans would usually cover one but not the other. For example, on one plan, Prevacid might have a $25 co-pay, but Nexium might cost  $50 on the same plan.

One cool thing I noticed was that doctors managed to find ways around this problem. One doctor wrote a prescription with six different PPIs on it, and for the patient's sake, we had to fill only whichever one was cheapest under the patient's plan. I saw another solution at my doctor's office. The office made a chart with all the drugs and the most widely used prescription plans in the area, and it clearly marked which of these drugs were covered by which plans. If every patient taking a PPI had this chart in his or her pocket, it would have helped save money at the pharmacy counter.

If you're shelling out a ton of money at the pharmacy for medications, you should be sure to investigate ways to save money with your doctor and your insurance plan.  If you know of a successful money saving strategy, please share it here.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.