Spending your money the right way on health-care
Rights & Money

5 Steps for Better Health-Care Spending

Having medical insurance and/or government coverage for the myriad of health-care issues many of us face as we get older is a relief. But there are often out-of-pocket costs we must worry about. The following are some strategies to help you save money and get more bang for your buck for health-related goods and services.

By Lola Augustine Brown

1. Ensure you need all the medications you’ve been prescribed

According to the report “Drug Use Among Seniors in Canada, 2016” by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), “approximately one-quarter of seniors were prescribed 10 or more drug classes in each year.” The shocking conclusion put forth in the report was that nearly half of senior Canadians had been prescribed drugs that were inappropriate, either in terms of the medications themselves or the duration of the prescriptions. More recent studies have also shown that many senior Canadians are taking prescription drugs they don’t need, which can have negative effects on both their health and their wallets.

Often, multiple drugs are prescribed for a single ailment—a practice known as polypharmacy. This can arise if a patient’s care is managed by multiple practitioners, as it can be hard for everyone to keep track of all the prescriptions and treatments. This is especially true when there’s no family doctor to provide the patient with consistent care. Unfortunately, this is the case for many of us; it’s also one of the reasons that seniors’ medical needs may slip between the cracks.

In order to reassess your current prescriptions, you’ll need to undergo a medication review. Schedule an appointment with your family doctor or pharmacist so together you can go through your current list of medications and verify that you still need all the drugs you’ve been prescribed. It’s also a good idea to bring a list of any overthe- counter medications, vitamins and supplements you regularly use, as even so-called natural supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medications and/or result in potentially harmful interactions.

2. Look for lower dispensing fees

Every time your pharmacy fills one of your prescriptions, you’re charged a dispensing fee. Each province has a set maximum dispensing fee for their public drug plans, typically in the $10 to $15 range. Given that this fee is applied to each prescription drug, costs can add up quickly for those who need multiple medications each month. This was especially true when, during the height of the pandemic, the Canadian Pharmacists Association enacted a policy to restrict refills to 30-day supplies in order to prevent potential drug shortages. So those who previously got 90 days worth of medications in one shot, for example, had to pay three times the dispensing fee for the same amount of drugs.

However, many pharmacies don’t charge the maximum allowable fee, so by shopping around, you may be able to save a significant amount of money each month. Big box retailers such as Costco and Walmart typically offer the lowest dispensing fees, sometimes half those of other drugstore chains and independent retailers. Phone around to find the best rates in your area.

3. Ask for cheaper alternatives

When drugs first come onto the market, they can be expensive— not necessarily because they’re expensive to produce, but because pharmaceutical companies need to recoup costs for the years of research that go into the development of new medications. Once the patents on new drugs expire (usually after 20 years), competitors can produce generic versions, generally available at lower costs.

Health Canada regulates generic drugs to ensure that they match the original in medicinal ingredients and concentrations of these per dosage, as well as in overall safety and effectiveness. You won’t notice any differences between generic and original versions of a drug, so there’s no need for brand loyalty. Simply ask your doctor if any of your brand-name prescriptions can be switched to generics, and prepare to take advantage of the savings opportunity.

Of course, not all drugs have generic alternatives. Some medications, especially those commonly used for conditions such as asthma, arthritis and Crohn’s disease, cost so much to produce that cheaper versions may never be possible, even after the original patents expire. Luckily, manufacturers of these drugs typically offer financial-support programs to help consumers cover costs. So it could be worthwhile for you to ask your doctor and/or dispensing professional whether you qualify for such assistance.

Even medications not covered by insurance and those that require payment of a deductible may vary in price across pharmacies. So expend the effort on a cost comparison, though you’ll likely find the lowest prices at big box stores on this front, too.

4. Get schooled

If you’re fortunate enough to live close to a school that trains tomorrow’s health-care professionals, student clinics may allow for an inexpensive and convenient alternative to otherwise pricey treatments that aren’t typically covered by government and/or private plans.

Dental schools, for one, offer lower-cost checkups and treatments carried out by students, though everything is supervised by general dentists or specialists, with dental hygienists also overseeing patient care. As these are learning workshops, plan for appointments to take longer than usual. However, according to Dr. Tamara Wright, a dentistry professor and the associate dean of clinics at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Dentistry, many seniors like the slower pace and heightened social aspect of these types of appointments. “The students have time to talk to the patients,” she says. “Some clients have been coming to our dental clinics for more than 30 years because they love being with the students.”

Wright says that instructors take great care to ensure that treatments are based on current research and that patients are involved in decisions concerning their dental health.

Of course, if you’re impatient and/or in a rush, this type of care might not be the best fit for you. “Students are learning and have to get instructors to check their work, so treatments take longer than in private practice,” explains Wright. “Appointments are three hours long, so patients must be able to commit to being at the school for that length of time.” In addition, clinic schedules can vary by treatment type, with some procedures taught less often than others— so flexibility surrounding appointment dates and times is key as a patient. Still, if you’ve been putting off attending to your teeth or following through on otherwise expensive treatments such as dental implants, a little patience will pay off in the end.

Similarly, the University of Waterloo’s optometry clinic offers a wide range of eye-care services, including fitting patients with eyeglasses and contacts, all at reduced costs. In fact, nearly all health-care specialties offer similar kinds of clinics, helping students to gather essential work experience.

Those seeking alternative and natural-health treatments may also benefit from lower-priced student-practitioner services. For example, the student clinic at Pacific Rim College in Vancouver offers acupuncture and Chinese herbal- medicine treatments for $35 each, a fraction of what one might pay at a standard natural-health clinic in Vancouver. Similarly, student clinics at Montreal’s Lotus Palm Institute of Thai Massage and Traditional Bodywork and those at the Toronto branch of the Canadian College of Osteopathy offer treatments far below market price. Call around to find what’s on offer in your area.

5. Keep up with your overall health care

The best way to ensure you’ll eventually require expensive health-care treatments is to put off the smaller, regular- maintenance health obligations we all have. So don’t skip dental exams, optician appointments and other necessary medical check-ins. What can start as an easy-to-fix cavity, for example, can quickly turn into a cracked tooth requiring a root canal or a pricey dental crown.

So make your health a priority because—as we know all too well by this stage in our lives—prevention is better than cure.