Illustration showing a computer cursor on a screen where someone is buying prescription drugs online

Getting your prescriptions without going to the pharmacy has its roots not in the current COVID-19 pandemic but in a decades-old convenience service offered by neighborhood pharmacies.

In fact, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, famously has said he delivered prescriptions for his family’s pharmacy in Brooklyn while he was growing up in the 1950s.

Today, the need for social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus is probably the main reason you might not want to leave your house or car to pick up your medications or other essentials.

And thankfully, you don’t need to: Most major retail chain drugstore and big-box pharmacies now offer delivery service, as do many independent and online pharmacies.

More on Drugs and the Coronavirus

Asti’s Pharmacy in Pittsburgh began curbside service as soon as COVID-19 emerged in the community, says Asti’s president, Chris Antypas, Pharm.D. The store also began a no-contact delivery service within a 45-mile radius and will mail prescriptions if patients live farther away. “Our patients’ safety is our No. 1 priority,” Antypas says.

Even before COVID-19, more than 70 percent of mom-and-pop pharmacies offered home delivery or mail-order service, says Doug Hoey, Pharm.D., president of the National Community Pharmacists Association. He believes most independent pharmacies now offer delivery in light of the pandemic.

Online pharmacies have seen an uptick in new customers during the coronavirus pandemic. Healthwarehouse.com and PillPack say they’ve had such a surge of new prescriptions, as well as over-the-counter drug orders, that their shipping is delayed now by a day or two.

If you’re looking for home delivery service for your prescriptions, consider these steps to ensure you stay safe.

Use U.S.-Based Pharmacies You Trust

One reason: Medications ordered from outside the U.S. might not make it to your front door, Hoey says. The Food and Drug Administration says it stops drugs at the border if they are adulterated, misbranded, or unapproved for use in the U.S.  

Indeed, in 2019 the FDA inspected more than 41,000 products and stopped 38,000 of them from entering the U.S., according to FDA spokesperson Jeremy Kahn. He says that the agency expects an even higher number of inspections in 2020 and that finding and removing unapproved or counterfeit products from the market are top priorities for the FDA.

Another challenge is that most online-only pharmacies are fraudulent, according to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, the national organization for state boards of pharmacy, which regulate pharmacists and the practice of pharmacy in all 50 states. The organization notes that 96 percent of the 35,000 online pharmacies it has identified run afoul of U.S. law.

Instead, consider that major chain retailers—Costco, CVS, Kroger, Walgreens, Walmart, and others—offer online refills and mail delivery, as do most major health insurance companies that have prescription services, such as Express Scripts and CVS/Caremark. (Read more about ordering drugs from overseas.)

Take Advantage of Free Shipping

CVS will now ship your prescriptions free of charge, says Michael DeAngelis, spokesperson for CVS. The retailer waived the fees in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to encourage patients to use the service. Walgreens is also waiving its fees on online orders as well as prescription deliveries, says spokesperson Alexandra Brown. 

Be prepared, though, for possible delays, and order ahead if you know you’re running out of your medication.

If your prescription coverage is through Express Scripts, it’ll also ship your medications free, as will Costco, Healthwarehouse.com, and PillPack.

Try Curbside or Mobile Pickup

Using Walmart’s app, you can manage your prescriptions, order refills, pay, and avoid lines at the pharmacy counter by picking up at the mobile pick-up section of the pharmacy, a special area for orders placed online but retrieved in the store. (Remember: Wear a face covering and practice social distancing if you go into the pharmacy!)

Other pharmacies, including CVS, and Walgreens, may have drive-thru pharmacy windows you can use instead.

Some Safeway, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and independent pharmacies may even bring a prescription (and other household goods or groceries) out to your car. Call ahead to see whether your pharmacy offers this service. 

Antypas says that Asti’s pharmacy in Pittsburgh closed its doors to the public and instead brings all medications to a person’s car window to help with social distancing measures. Associates can sign for you so that you don’t have to touch the keypad or pens. (Antypas says you can even get vaccinated in the car.)

Don't Leave Meds Outside After Delivery

“That’s especially true as we head back into hotter temperatures for summer,” Hoey says, adding that most drugs should be kept in temperatures between 59° F and about 86° F.

That’s especially important for medications, such as insulin, that need refrigeration in order to maintain freshness and potency, Hoey says.

Add Nonprescription Items to Your Order

That includes vitamins, pain relievers, cold medications, and even groceries. “We have toilet paper!” says Antypas at Asti’s Pharmacy. 

For goods beyond toilet paper, Walgreens is now paired up with Postmates nationwide, Brown says, and can deliver household products in addition to over-the-counter products, medications, and food items.

CVS works with Instacart shoppers and advertises that it can get an order to you on the same day you place it.

But, given widespread reports of delays with Instacart and some other same-day delivery services, you may want to check in with a pharmacy first to see how quickly it will fill your order, especially if you need it right away.  

For most same-day orders, Antypas says Asti’s Pharmacy will deliver within a few hours and can deliver immediately if the need is urgent.

Food may also be on the delivery menu. Locally owned Keeseville Pharmacy in Keeseville, N.Y., had to close its store to the public once COVID-19 hit, but through a partnership with local farmers, customers still order farm-fresh produce and other food items at the pharmacy’s website for delivery or curbside pickup.

Ask the Pharmacy to Sync Your Prescriptions

That way refills can happen at the same time, saving time and hassle. If you take multiple medications for a chronic condition, pharmacies including Kroger, Healthwarehouse.com, and PillPack.com, will make sure that your prescriptions renew at the same time and that you receive refills all at once, so you don’t have to constantly manage them.  

Pharmacists can also coordinate with your doctor so that you can get 90-day prescriptions, which often helps you to avoid at least one copay.

Stick to One Pharmacy If You Can

That’s so you can have a single point of contact for all your medications, Hoey says, and so a pharmacist can check for drug interactions with all the medications you take.

If you fill prescriptions at multiple pharmacies, let each pharmacist know your full list of medications.

Look for Drug Discounts

That can sometimes make medications even cheaper than if you use insurance. And they can be especially helpful if you don’t have health insurance, Antypas says.

Pharmacies including Costco, Kroger, Rite Aid, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, and Walmart offer hundreds of low-cost generic drugs—so low (think $4 for a month’s supply or $10 for three months’ worth) that you may be able to skip using insurance altogether. Local pharmacies may also offer extremely low-cost generic medications to match chain competitors.

The main thing, Antypas says, is to ask your pharmacy if it has any kind of low-cost program. “Local pharmacies want to help patients get an affordable price for their medication and will try to work with patients,” Antypas says.

What’s more, coupons and vouchers from websites such as Blink Health, GoodRx, and RxSaver can provide hundreds of dollars in savings, especially on generic medications. Here again, prices could be lower than your insurance copay.