Study shows correlation between free samples and higher prescription costs

WASHINGTON According to a new survey from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, patients who receive free drug samples from their doctors often end up having significantly higher out-of-pocket costs for their prescription medications than people who don’t receive the samples.

Researchers found that on average, patients who received free samples spent about $166 in out-of-pocket costs on prescription drugs in the six months before receiving the samples, $244 for the six months in which thy received samples, and $212 for the six months following receipt of the free drugs, the study found. On the other hand, patients who did not get a free sample spent about $178 on prescription drugs over six months.

“This is a curious finding because one would think, intuitively, that if you receive a free sample, one’s out-of-pocket prescription cost would be lower, not higher,” said lead researcher G. Caleb Alexander, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

There are several possible explanations for the finding, Alexander said. One is that patients who receive free samples may be sicker than patients who don’t get samples.

“The second possibility is that patients who receive free samples may go on to receive and fill prescriptions for the very same medicine that were initially begun as free samples,” Alexander said. “We know that drugs that are available as free samples are those that are being widely marketed and promoted, and these drugs are more expensive than their older, less promoted counterparts.”

Doctors looking for alternatives to having their patients pay for these high-cost drugs often offer them generic equivalents or prescribe more than a one-month supply of the drug to reduce the co-payments.