When and Why to Consider Mail-Order Prescriptions
By Eliza SkolerKara Miecznikowski
Mail-order pharmacies operate through your health insurance plan and can be cheaper and more convenient than getting your medications from a local pharmacy; learn about the advantages and disadvantages of this option
Editor's note: This article was updated on March 3, 2020
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A “mail-order” prescription means that you don’t have to pick up your medication from a pharmacy; instead, it is delivered to your doorstep. This article compares the benefits and challenges of mail-order vs. traditional pharmacies so that you can decide which option is best for you.
Note: mail-order pharmacies operate through your health insurance plan – if you don’t have health insurance, you can still receive medications in the mail from online pharmacies. Learn more here.
What is the difference between traditional and mail-order prescriptions?
For traditional pickup, a healthcare professional typically calls a prescription in to a local, walk-in pharmacy (or you bring in the prescription paper). A pharmacist then fills the prescription, runs it through your insurance, and you walk out with the medication.
In mail-order, a healthcare professional sends the prescription to a mail-order pharmacy, which generally works through your insurance company and its pharmacy benefit manager (PBM). Your prescription is filled by the mail-order pharmacy, run through insurance, and the medication is mailed directly to you. Co-pays differ based on mail-order or traditional walk-in pharmacies. Also, co-pays depend on your insurance plan, so make sure to consider your insurance coverage when deciding between traditional or mail-order prescriptions.
Why consider mail-order prescriptions?
Mail-order medications are often less expensive. Mail-order pharmacies operate through your health plan, meaning that your insurer can buy medications in large quantities directly from drug manufacturers to lower costs. Mail-order prescriptions usually contain a 90-day bulk supply, which can save you money.
A 90-day supply means that your prescription needs to be filled less often, so it’s less time and work for refills.
Many mail-order pharmacies offer 24/7 service through their website or by telephone. This is helpful if you have questions about your medication outside of business hours, when local pharmacies are closed.
Why stick with traditional prescriptions?
Receiving medications in the mail can take longer than ordering and picking up medications from a local pharmacy. Mail-order isn’t ideal for getting a medication you need immediately.
The mail system is sometimes unpredictable: medications may arrive late or damaged. Some mail orders may require signatures; if there is not someone home to sign then you may not receive your medication. This can be dangerous if your medicine is important for managing a life-threatening condition.
Mail-order pharmacies use special packaging to keep medications like insulin and GLP-1 agonists refrigerated during shipping. On rare occasions, refrigeration systems can break, so you should unpack these drugs as soon as possible after delivery to make sure they stay cold.
Some people prefer to talk to a pharmacist about their medications in person. This is not possible for mail-order prescriptions.
Signing up for mail-order prescriptions can be complicated since you usually have to fill out a form. Your healthcare provider may not be familiar with your insurance company’s mail-order pharmacy.
To set up mail-order prescriptions, visit your insurance company’s website. Here are the mail-order pharmacy websites for some common health insurers in the United States:
If you use a different insurance company and don’t know if your insurance covers mail-order prescriptions, check your insurer's website or call the Members Services phone line. You can find this website and phone number on your insurance member ID card.
For more information about affordable medication, see these diaTribe articles:
This article is part of a series on access that was made possible by support from AstraZeneca and Lilly Diabetes. The diaTribe Foundation retains strict editorial independence for all content.