Low-cost Medications Are a Bonus for Caregivers in Peru

A customer buys medications in Nortfarma, a Peruvian pharmacy; prices are fixed by a national ministry, and stores that overcharge are fined. (photo: Andina)

In other posts, I’ve written about how affordable home-health aides are in Lima, a benefit that greatly helped our family when caring for my American father in Peru.

Today I want to share another bonus of caregiving in Lima: how medications are sold and dispensed. The Latin American system is so different than the for-profit model used in the United States, it’s shocking–and I mean that in a good way.

Basically, consumers at a Peruvian pharmacy can get almost any medication they want for about 70% less than what it would cost in the United States–without a doctor’s prescription. This savings applies only drugs that are no longer under patent and which are currently manufactured by several companies or as generics. New medications under patent are still full price.

For instance, the memory drug Excelon was still under patent when my father was taking it in 2011, so we had to pay full price (more than US$100 a month) for it in Lima. However, the eight other medications he took daily (Omeprazol, Sertraline, etc.) were available in generic form, and we ended up spending about US$80 a month for all of them together.

The savings were considerable, so we didn’t need his US insurance to cover drug costs. (His prescription plan  didn’t work down in Peru anyway).

I know that some readers are still stuck on that phrase in the third paragraph–“without a doctor’s prescription.”

Yes, that’s right. With the exception of certain drugs (see below), medications are freely dispensed in pharmacies sin receta (without a prescription), and overall, this works to the consumer’s favor in Peru, apart from the hazards of self-medicating. People do go to doctors and get prescriptions, but they aren’t necessary for initial purchase. And this system makes it much easier when you are a caregiver to an elderly person and you have to keep up with lots of refills.

Here is how the ordering process works:

From antibiotics to birth control to glaucoma drops, you just go to your neighborhood pharmacy and ask for the medication by name (in Spanish, of course). In most cases, the pharmacy will sell it to you. If they don’t have it or refuse to sell it to you, you can check with other stores until you find one that will.

This process works for most drugs except narcotics and amphetamines; those must be bought with a prescription, and reputable pharmacies do not make exceptions. (You might be able to go into a shady neighborhood and find a drugstore to sell you amphetamines, but that outfit would not be able to guarantee the quality of their product, which would put you at major risk.)

During the seven years that we lived in Peru, I got quite used to the Peruvian way of buying medicines. If I went to a doctor, he might give me a prescription, but if I needed antibiotics or altitude-sickness drugs (necessary when traveling to high altitudes), I just went to our neighborhood and ordered what I needed. I could buy just a few pills or a whole blister. The pharmacist was there to advise me when I had questions. It was a good system. It worked.

In my next post, I’ll explain more of the details of ordering medications in Spanish. There are a few tips that non-Peruvians should know.

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