Saving drug money

For the uninsured and underinsured, paying for medications can be as much of a challenge as finding an affordable health-care provider. Fortunately, a number of organizations and programs offer cheap or free drugs to those who qualify. Here's a roundup of some key local sources for discounted meds. (And if you know of one we missed, please send the pertinent info to so we can add it to the online version of this article.)

The $4 fix

Though this isn't exclusive to Western North Carolina, numerous local health-care practitioners Xpress contacted stressed that when it comes to bargain prices on prescription medicines, the nation's largest discount retailer can be hard to beat. In 2006, Wal-Mart introduced its $4 prescriptions program, which has grown to cover hundreds of common prescription drugs (usually generic versions). Most medications on the list cost $4 for a 30-day supply at commonly prescribed dosages ($10 for a 90-day supply).

"I would advise everyone to always ask their doctor to prescribe a generic whenever possible — to get those $4 and $10 rates," says pharmacist Stephanie Kiser, the director of community health and corporate wellness at Mission Hospital. "Most things can be treated with generics," she adds, noting such exceptions as some diabetes drugs. Kiser also advises low-income patients to look into the assistance programs run by the major drug manufacturers.

Some other retailers — including Ingles, Target and Walgreens — have since followed Wal-Mart's lead, establishing similar programs.

To view Wal-Mart's current $4 list, go to any of the chain's pharmacies, or visit To find out about manufacturers' programs, go to and


Grow your own: At the Appalachia School of Holistic Herbalism in West Asheville, students and customers can access cheap herbal medicines as well as free clinics and low-cost classes that teach you how to cultivate and harvest your own remedies. Pictured here are school director Ceara Foley and office assistant Vanessa Portillo. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Buncombe County rolled out a discount-drug program in 2005, christening it BuncombeCountyRx. Sponsored by the National Association of Counties, the program is available to any Buncombe County resident regardless of age, financial status or whether or not you're insured.

Getting started could hardly be easier: Simply pick up your free card at any Buncombe County departmental office or branch library. You can start using the card right away at any participating pharmacy (there are about 50 in Buncombe and thousands more across the country).

"There is no enrollment form, no membership fee and no restrictions or limits on frequency of use," the county Web site notes. "Savings range from 13 to 35 percent on purchase of drugs at local pharmacies and up to 50 percent on mail-order purchases."

To locate a participating pharmacy, call (877) 321-2652 or visit

ABCCM's medication assistance program

In addition to its clinic (see "We Care" elsewhere in this issue), the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry also offers a free medication-assistance program for folks who qualify.

The safety net for meds: Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry offers a free medication-assistance program for folks who qualify. Here, Monica Barber, the nonprofit's pharmacy coordinator, fills an order.

The program covers some of the more expensive brand-name drugs that are not on the $4 lists, explains Monica Barber, the nonprofit's pharmacy coordinator. To qualify, you must be a Buncombe County resident with no health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid assistance. There's also an income limit, which Barber says amounts to about $1,500 a month for a single person. In addition, you must be under a doctor's care — and, of course, have a prescription.

At present, some 175 people are enrolled in the program. To find out if you qualify, call ABCCM at 259-5339 and schedule an appointment.

Project Access

The Buncombe County Medical Society Foundation runs Project Access, which enlists volunteer physicians and other health facilities to provide free care to qualified applicants. People enrolled in Project Access are also given (mostly) free drugs.

Last year, for example, roughly 3,500 patients received free care from Project Access providers; in the process, the project also covered the costs of some 6,800 prescriptions worth about $250,000, according to Jana Kellam, director of BCMSF health access programs. Some prescriptions require a $5 co-pay that covers up to $250 per prescription.

Care and medication are available to Buncombe County residents, usually ages 18 to 64, who have no medical insurance, don't qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, are low-income and have a medical need. Patients must first be referred by the Buncombe County Health Center, a community clinic or a private doctor. Potential beneficiaries are then screened by phone.

There's no set limit on how long Project Access participants may remain in the program, but enrollment typically lasts about 6 months.
For more information, visit or call 274-6989.

Council on Aging

Although it doesn't provide direct drug assistance, the local office of the nonprofit Council on Aging offers a Senior Health Insurance Information Program that helps low-income Medicare beneficiaries apply for subsidies to reduce medication costs. The subsidies are administered through the Social Security Administration's Extra Help program.
To receive free help applying for Extra Help, call the Council on Aging at 277-8288 and ask for either Nathan Johnson or Sybil French.

Appalachia School of Holistic Herbalism

Free card, cheaper meds: Buncombe County participates in a prescription-drug discount program that anyone can join simply by picking up a card at a county-department office or library branch.

Looking for herbal medicines on the cheap? West Asheville's Appalachia School of Herbalism offers short, low-cost classes such as "Stocking the Natural Medicine Cabinet," "How to Make Your Own Herbal Remedies" and "Weeds and Foods as Medicines."

"A large part of what we offer is the classes, so people can figure out how to take care of themselves with herbal medicines that are more financially accessible than pharmaceuticals," explains Ceara Foley, the school's director.

The school also features a free herbal clinic, wherein clients work with interns under faculty supervision and can purchase herbs at cost from the school's apothecary of more than 100 dried herbs and 600 alcohol extracts.

Community members can also take advantage of the school's library, which contains more than 500 books on holistic health and sustainable living. It's open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
For more information, call 350-1221, or visit

Eblen-Kimmel Charities

The Asheville-based Eblen-Kimmel Charities provides several kinds of financial assistance to Western North Carolina residents who have medical needs they can't meet on their own. Among their offerings are a medication-assistance program for adults and a children's pharmacy, both of which collaborate with a network of local pharmacies to help those in need get their meds at the lowest possible cost.

The programs are first-come, first-served and have several criteria for eligibility.
For more information, call 255-3066.

Western North Carolina Community Health Services

Western North Carolina Community Health Services recently took over many services previously handled by the Buncombe County Health Center. The clinic has numerous ways of providing medicine at substantially reduced costs, usually through subsidies, depending on a patient's insurance status, income level and other factors.

"We evaluate on a case-by-case basis," explains Executive Director Carlos Gomez, noting that sometimes even the most basic fees are waived, depending on the level of need and the availability of drugs donated by pharmaceutical companies. When fees are waived, it's for a specified period of time, after which patients are expected to be covered under disability provisions or to find a way to pay.
The WNCCHS clinic is at 257 Biltmore Ave. in downtown Asheville; call 285-0622 to schedule an appointment and learn about eligibility criteria.

Jon Elliston can be reached at or at 251-1333, ext. 127.

About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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3 thoughts on “Saving drug money

  1. Brock Gunter-Smith

    This is tremendous! More cities, counties and states should be working to put in place programs to educate residents on all of the various ways to save money on prescription programs that don’t involve locking into expensive insurance programs they may not be able to afford, or if they’re lucky enough to have insurance, ways to fill in the gaps in insurance coverage.

    I work for Canada Drugs, where we worked with the state of Minnesota through their iSaveRx program to connect Minnesota residents with lower cost prescriptions drugs from Canada in cases where their insurance was insufficient or the Walgreens style of $4-generic programs didn’t have a cheap alternative. For 9 years we’ve been helping Americans, and people all over the world explore their options and see beyond the expensive, limited choices presented by the standard insurance plans and expensive pharmacy chains.

    Take charge of your prescription expenses everyone, price shop and form buying groups to demand lower prices.

    All the best,


  2. Chad Nesbitt

    Great article! Thank you for showing the public where they can go for affordable medicine and help. All of these listed in your article are great.

    I have never been to the Appalachia School of Holistic Herbalism, but I can tell you that I am a firm believer in holistic herbs. It works!

    My two cents worth is – The General Nutrition Center. The GNC carries vitamins called Mega Men Sport. I have been taking these vitamins for 8 years and have never had a cold, flu, upset stomach, etc. since taking them. Added to that I eat blueberries, almonds, fish oil, lots of water, and a shot of scotch (Chevas Regal) a night. OK maybe two, three, or four shots but only when arguing with Ken Hanke and his liberal friends.

    Seriously, thank you. People need to know about these places. From a conservative’s point of view, these places save you money, it’s not government run health care, they are professional, and can keep you healthy.

  3. TokyoTaos

    Just a word of warning: not all generics are created the same. I was taking a generic form of an antidepressant from a local pharmacy that worked great for years. When I went through a financially challenging time last year I obtained a different generic form of the same antidepressant through Buncombe County Health Center and within a few weeks had a very bad emotional crash that was pretty scary. I did a lot of research and discovered that the FDA only requires that the “bioequivalence of the generic product be between 80% and 125% [of the brand name product]” – according to the Approved Drug Products with Therapeutic Equivalence Evaluations, a publication of the FDA. This means that if a brand name has 200 mg of an active ingredient a generic could have as much as 250mg or as little as 160 mg. I think the difference in the amount of active ingredient between the two generics I was taking was enough to kick in a bad reaction. Within a few weeks of switching back to my old generic I was myself again. Generics are great as I can attest to – but I just wanted to share my experience so that people are aware when making changes in their generics. Buncombe County Health Center has also been a great resource for the community and I in no way mean to disparage their pharmacy. The FDA claims all these generics are “identical” but when you look at their actual allowable range of variance this is not completely accurate.

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