Sometimes, we take medication for a short period of time to help address temporary health issues. For example, this year, I’ve had bronchitis, a sinus infection and a cold. With my doctor’s advice, I’ve taken a veritable smorgasbord of different medications. But these medicines all shared something in common: They were a short-term solution to a short-term problem. Even though my bronchitis seemed like it would last forever, it didn’t (thank goodness!).

Other conditions do not “go away” — they’re called chronic conditions, because they are a part of your everyday life. Common chronic conditions include:

When you have a chronic condition, you may require daily medication to keep it in check, in addition to receiving other treatments or making lifestyle changes your doctor may recommend. That’s where maintenance medications (also called “controller drugs”) come in.

What Are Maintenance Medications?

Maintenance medications are medicines that need to be taken every day, regardless of whether you feel well or not. Some may relieve the symptoms of your condition; others help to reduce them.

As Steve Capuzzi, a licensed pharmacist and pharmacy sales consultant at Highmark Inc., explains, “A maintenance medication is one you take on an ongoing basis for three months or longer. They’re the kind of medications that, once the right dose is established for you, taking the medication is pretty steady.”

That contrasts with “acute medications” — like my bronchitis medication, or drugs you take for a short-term illness or condition. In many cases, maintenance drugs could be required for the rest of your life.

Some conditions, like asthma, may require a maintenance medication combined with an as-needed or “reliever” medication. People with asthma often have an inhaler or pill they use on a daily basis — their maintenance medication — but also have a special “rescue inhaler” to use when they are having trouble breathing.

Medicine in weekly pill box and red alarm clock

Maintenance Meds: An Everyday Affair

One big challenge with maintenance medications is remembering to take them!

Depending on the medication, if you stop taking it for a day or two, you may not always notice a change in your body. My husband Pete, for example, has been taking the same medication for over 16 years. It helps him function, and when he doesn’t take it for a day or two, he feels foggy and “not all there,” but he’s mostly fine.

That’s not true for everyone, though. In many cases, maintenance medications may not always address symptoms in a way that’s noticeable to you, but your body will notice if you stop taking them!

That’s why Capuzzi recommends that you try to get into a routine for taking your medication. He says, “You can build a routine by tying taking your medication to something you always do, like brushing your teeth.” He explains that you’ll want to ensure you’re following the instructions with the medication, such as taking it with a meal or light snack, but that otherwise, creating a routine time to take your medication can help you remember when it’s time.

He also suggests using mobile phone apps that offer reminder options and send you an alert when it’s time to take your medication. A daily pillbox is another option — or ask a loved one to help you remember.

Refilling Maintenance Medications

When you’re taking maintenance medications every day, you’ll need to know what to do when it’s time to refill.

Many doctors will write you a prescription that comes with a certain amount of refills — it’s up to your doctor how many. For example, they might write you a prescription for a one-month supply of your medication, with two refills, so that you will have three months’ worth of medicine.

At three months, your doctor may ask that you come back in to be re-evaluated, or they may be able to write you a new prescription and send it to your pharmacy. Because different doctors have different policies, you’ll want to discuss your refill needs with your doctor.

Refilling your maintenance medications is especially important if you’re doing something that disrupts your everyday routine. For example, long trips or vacations may pose a challenge if you’re taking a drug every single day and need to ensure you have enough. You’ll want to discuss with your doctor what your options are for getting refills. Your doctor may also want you to bring a little more medication than you actually need (imagine losing a pill on the floor in a hotel room!).

Saving Money on Your Medications

When you need to take maintenance medications daily, the costs can add up over time, even if your copay (the amount that you pay out of pocket) is fairly low.

For example, if your medication includes a $10 copay each month, that’s $120 every year. One way that Highmark’s mail order medication program can save you some money is by giving you the option to get three months’ worth of prescriptions by mail for the same copay cost as two months filled at a local pharmacy. That would save you $40 a year.

Mail Order vs. Pharmacy: Sample Cost Savings

Pharmacy: Copay per Month Pharmacy: Total Copay for One Year Mail Order:
Copay for Three-Month Prescription
Mail Order:
Total CoPay for One Year
Copay Savings Using Mail Order Rx Program
$10 $120 $20 $80 $40/year

 

If your Highmark health plan includes a mail order prescription program, get started by logging in to your member website and clicking on the Prescriptions tab. Then scroll down to the Save With Mail Order section to transfer your existing prescription to mail order or start a new prescription (see image below).

Screenshot of member website's Prescriptions page

If you have questions about your maintenance medications or want to learn about cost-saving opportunities, call the Member Service phone number on your Highmark ID card.

Not Sure About Your Medications? Get Help!

Maintenance drugs require some additional effort to ensure that you’re taking care of your health. On top of remembering to take your pill every day, you’ll want to make sure that you let all of your doctors know when you’re taking these types of medications. This can help you avoid interactions with other drugs or prescriptions they may prescribe for you.

The extra effort and planning comes with the reward of keeping your medical condition under control. And medicine has come a long way since “cures” of the past — many modern medications have been improved over past versions, ensuring that anyone who needs a regular prescription is less likely to experience adverse side effects. As a result, more of us are able to live normal, healthier lives.