Free Drug Samples – Do they Cost More in the Long-Run?

I was recently made aware of an article on MSNBC which alleges free drug samples provided by doctors actually end up costing the patient more money over time. This, of course, is completely counter-intuitive, and I, not in the habit of taking health information from news sources, looked it up.

And yes, it is, in fact, the case that some studies indicate that those who get free drug samples from their doctor actually end up paying more money in the long-run.

How can this possibly be?

Glad you asked.

Do Free Drug Samples Cost the Consumer More Money?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

First off, for some reason insured and higher-income folks tend to receive more drug samples than their uninsured and less-income counterparts. (Although not all research agrees on this point.) Why? Well, I’m not sure, but if I had to guess I’d say that rich (or insured) people go to nicer clinics where there are more free drug samples to pass around. Poorer (or uninsured) folks tend to go to less expensive clinics where more people are vying for the same number of free drug samples. But that is just a guess on my part.

And while it’s convenient not to go to the drugstore (and sometimes even necessary due to severity of illness) and additionally convenient to trial several drugs for free before settling on one for which to pay, really it’s those who can’t afford drugs that should be receiving the free samples (if you ask me).

Secondly, some studies report that by providing free drug samples, the patient’s out-of-pocket expenses for drugs actually increases.

Well, Maybe Free Drug Samples Don’t Cost More Money

Free Drug Samples and Prescribing Practices

Of course, depending on the study, some researchers have shown that free drug samples do, in fact, cost patients less, although the benefit may be marginal.

Free Drug Samples are Marketing Tools

And whether you believe free drug samples cost patients more money or not, make no mistake about it, “free” drug samples are, in fact, marketing tools. Pharmacology companies aren’t providing free samples out of the goodness of their heart (assuming they have one), they are providing free drug samples because they know that it increases the chance that their branded medication will be prescribed over their generic medication. And research definitely bears this last point out. (This may be even more true for psych meds.)

And naturally, while generics can be every bit as effective as brand medication, drug companies don’t make money on generics – only their brand. (Although generics are very good for the consumer, costing up to 80% less than the brand name in the United States. In case you were wondering, the difference is only about 20% in Canada because we don’t allow the kind of brand name prices seen in the US.)

Are Free Drug Samples Good or Bad?

Considering the conflicting information, I believe it comes down to the prescriber. Some doctors are quite capable of making good free drug sample providing decisions and this can lower the prescription cost, particularly for those who are needy. However, free drug samples can affect prescribing practices in negative ways and not only cost more money but stick you with a brand medication when a generic might be just as good.

So, me personally? I’m a fan of free drug samples. I think it’s the only way that many people could receive the medications they are currently on. But it comes down to the responsibility of the healthcare provider – as prescriptions always do.


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