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Can a pharmacy fill a prescription early?

Answered by Shivam Patel, PharmD, BSPS, RPh | Reviewed by Lucia Mueller | Posted September 26, 2019

Yes, you can fill a prescription early. In fact, I highly recommend you do so!

One hundred percent of the time you don’t pick up your medication, it will not work. According to the CDC, 3.8 billion prescriptions are written annually in the U.S. One out of five of these new prescriptions are never filled (often due to cost) and 50% of these prescriptions are taken incorrectly based on their timing, frequency, duration, and dosage.

The World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of medication adherence to patients throughout their entire treatment. Non-adherence is shown to account for up to 50% of treatment failures and about 125,000 deaths every year in the U.S. While working for a large chain pharmacy, I saw a lot of non-adherence to medication and— trust me—nothing beneficial comes out of it.

Most pharmacies now offer text message alerts when your prescription is ready to pick up. I highly recommend signing-up for these reminders so you know exactly when to pick up your medication without those annoying “robocalls” we are all too familiar with. If you forget to call in refills for your medication, pharmacies can set you up with automatic refill so it will be ready every time you run out. It’s your body and it’s time to take care of it.

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How long is a prescription good for?

Prescriptions written by U.S. licensed prescribers are valid for one year unless they are for controlled substances. For schedule III and IV controlled drugs, the maximum a prescription can be valid for is 6 months. For schedule II drugs, the rules are little different as the validity length is based on individual state boards of pharmacies. For example, a schedule II prescription in Massachusetts is valid for 30 days but a prescription written in California would be valid for 6 months. It's important to check with your local pharmacist or board of pharmacy if you believe your prescription is close to expiration.

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Can a pharmacy fill a prescription early?

The short answer is yes. Here are the reasons you could.

Yes, because you’re leaving town for a long time

Pharmacies understand that patients sometimes are away from home for a long time due to extended vacation or work travel. This is one good reason to fill prescriptions early. In this situation, the pharmacist will have to call your prescription insurance and request a vacation override to allow coverage for your early refill to take on vacation. If you usually pay cash for your prescriptions, you would simply explain to the pharmacist you are traveling and need an early refill. The pharmacist will check your prescription to make sure you have refills remaining. If you do, then you will be able to get your early refill, at least on all non-controlled medication (see below for more about controlled drugs). If you do not, then you may need to call your provider for a new prescription.

Yes, because you’ve lost your medication

Patients sometimes lose or drop their medications and need an early refill to make sure they don’t miss a dose. In this situation, the pharmacist will have to call your prescription insurance company and request a loss override to allow coverage for your early refill. Please note most insurances only allow this type of override once or twice a year. If you pay cash for your prescriptions, you would simply explain to the pharmacist why you need an early refill and you will be able to get your early refill on all non-controlled medication.

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Normally, how many days early can I refill a prescription?

Prescriptions are filled by pharmacists based on the supply your doctor or other clinician specifies. The supply is calculated by dividing the total quantity of medication prescribed by the number of times you take the medication each day. For non-controlled 30-day prescriptions, most pharmacies will allow you to refill at least day 28 (or 2 days before you should run out of medication). Your refill date can also depend on your prescription insurance. For example, routine, maintenance medications, such as for high blood pressure and diabetes, can often be refilled as early as day 25 (of 30 days total).

The same goes for refilling a 90-day prescription: you can usually do so at least two days before you run out. However, you may be able to refill it earlier based on your insurance coverage. Pharmacies understand that patients on maintenance medications, such as for high blood pressure, may misplace a few tablets and will usually provide a few tablets to hold you over until your refill date is permitted.

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How about refilling early for controlled drugs (like Vicodin, Xanax, or Adderall)?

As you may have inferred from the above discussion, controlled drugs are different when it comes to refills and other pharmacy practices. Controlled drugs contain chemicals that are regulated not just by the FDA but also the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Pharmacies are stricter when it comes to early refills of such medications to ensure that patients do not start abusing or diverting them.

There are no federal limits regarding the quantity of Schedule II controlled substance prescriptions dispensed, but the amount prescribed by a practitioner must be consistent with a legitimate medical purpose. However, most states and insurances limit dispensing a schedule II prescription to a 30-day supply. For example, in Massachusetts, a Schedule II prescription is valid for only 30 days from the date of issue. Schedule III and IV prescriptions are only valid up to six months after the date of issue.

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Do you have to wait 30 days to refill Adderall?

Adderall is a Schedule II federally regulated controlled substance. Under federal law, schedule II prescriptions cannot be refilled. For this reason, your health care provider will usually provide multiple prescriptions with a “Do not fill until X date” written on them. This notifies your pharmacist of the appropriate date to have your schedule II prescriptions filled.

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How early can you refill Schedule III & IV prescriptions?

According to federal regulations, Schedules III and IV controlled substances may be refilled if authorized on the prescription. These prescriptions may only be refilled up to five times within six months after the date of issue. Once the five refills are finished or after six months, whichever occurs first, a new prescription must be prescribed.

Most local pharmacies will allow you to fill Schedule III & IV meds two days before you should run out or day 28 of a 30-day supply.

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How do I fill a prescription?

To fill a prescription, you can either request a physical copy and bring it to your local pharmacy;  or your health care provider can telephone or send an electronic prescription to your local pharmacist. In most states, electronic prescriptions are mandated for controlled drugs except under limited circumstances. You should have your prescription insurance information on hand if you are a new patient to the pharmacy, this will ensure you get coverage for your prescription and receive it in a timely manner. Once you drop off your prescription you can either wait for in the pharmacy or come back at a later time to pick it up.  

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How do I get an emergency prescription?

An emergency prescription is issued for medication when it is dispensed for immediate use by the patient, and it is not possible for the health care provider to provide a written prescription for the drug at that time. For non-controlled drugs, this process is easier. But even for controlled drugs, it can be done. According to federal regulations, in a true emergency, the health care provider may telephone a schedule II prescription to a pharmacist that will dispense it. The health care provider must provide a written and signed prescription to the pharmacy within seven days. The drug prescribed and quantity dispensed should only be for treating the patient during the emergency period. Read more about the requirements here.

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