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What is a drug cost estimator?

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What are they?How to useTipsNo insurance?Insurance-free calculatorsSummary
Drug cost estimators are online tools that help you see the prices of different medications. Insurance companies, nonprofits, pharmacies, and health websites usually offer these helpful tools.
Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI
Updated on

Drug cost estimators or drug price calculators are helpful tools to see how much you’d pay for specific medications. 

The results are often not the exact price you’d have to pay, but they give you an idea of the costs to expect.

Different factors can affect medication costs, such as your insurance coverage, retail price fluctuations, available coupons and discounts, and overall demand and availability.

What are drug cost estimators?

Adult female sitting at a large wooden kitchen table looking at a tablet device for more information about a drug cost estimator
Photography by Lechatnoir/Getty Images

A drug cost estimator or a drug price calculator is an online tool that health insurance companies, nonprofit organizations, pharmacies, health websites, and others provide to help people calculate the price of certain medications.

Typically, the calculators allow you to enter multiple medications, doses, and quantities and then give you a total estimated annual cost. The tools may also offer comparisons of the same drugs on different health plans, as the drug costs can sometimes vary depending on which plan you choose.

Health insurance companies like UnitedHealthcare, pharmacies like CVS, nonprofits like NeedyMeds, and state Health Marketplaces all offer a form of online prescription medication cost estimator.

How to use a drug cost estimator and how they can help

Drug cost calculators vary depending on which company provides the tool. For example, if you’re using the medication cost estimator from an insurance company, this may include information about their different drug plans, whereas a drug price calculator from an online pharmacy may only include discount codes or coupons.

The objective of a drug price calculator is to give you an idea of how much specific prescription medications cost in your area at a certain point in time. 

In general, you can expect them to work in the following way:

  1. Once you’ve accessed a drug cost calculator, type the name of your medication in the search field. You should have the option to search for multiple medications.
  2. Some calculators will ask you for your zip code or state. If so, fill in the relevant field to ensure your results include accurate local information.
  3. Enter the dosage of the medication, such as 10 milligrams (mg).
  4. Type or select the quantity of the medication (for example, 30 capsules or 60 tablets).
  5. Some calculators will also ask you how frequently you plan on ordering or purchasing the medication, like monthly or every 3 months. 
  6. Click the “search” or “show results” button to display your results.

The results should include an approximate cost for the medication, dosage, and quantity you’re searching for. You’ll also usually see a breakdown of different retailers and the distance from where you are.

Tips for using a drug cost estimator

When using a drug price calculator, you may find the following tips useful:

  • Compare: Try to use different drug price calculators. For example, if you have an insurance plan, you can use your insurance company’s estimator and a calculator from a nonprofit or a pharmacy to see if there are any significant price differences.
  • Brand and generic: If available, search for the brand-name and generic versions of your medication to check for price differences. Generic medications usually cost less, but sometimes brand-name versions have discounts that can lower their price. Both drug versions have the same active ingredient, and they should work in the same way, but if you have any questions on drug ingredients, a pharmacist or healthcare professional can offer tailored advice.
  • Assistance programs: Some drug cost estimators can let you know if there are any prescription assistance programs available for your specific medication. It’s worth considering these programs to help lower your healthcare costs.

Can I use a drug cost estimator without insurance?

If you don’t have insurance, you can still use a drug price calculator.

However, calculators from insurance companies can sometimes give you a closer estimate of how much you’d have to pay for your medications because they can incorporate your specific plan into the calculations.

Insurance-free drug cost estimators

You can use some drug price calculators without an insurance plan. These include:

  • NeedyMeds drug cost calculator: NeedyMeds is a nonprofit organization that helps people who can’t afford medication and other types of healthcare. NeedyMeds also helps people find assistance programs that can cover the cost of medication. Its drug price calculator is useful and simple to use.
  • Pharmacies drug cost estimators: Pharmacies like CVS Caremark and Walgreens offer tools to search for drug prices. In some cases, you’ll have to provide some personal information or create an account to use the tools. 
  • Health websites: Websites like Optum Perks let you look for drug costs by name, dosage, and quantity.

If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

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Drug price calculators are helpful tools that give you an idea of medication costs at different local retailers.

Health insurance companies, pharmacies, health websites, and nonprofits offer these tools.

The results may vary depending on different factors, such as whether you have insurance coverage, discounts and coupons, market availability, demand, and sometimes the area where you live.

It’s good to check prices using different drug cost calculators to compare not only discounts but also whether you can save on generic prescriptions over the brand name alternatives.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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