Drug costs are soaring across the U.S., with polls showing millions of Americans forgo medications they should take because they can’t afford them.
But a new survey by Consumer Reports finds that what you pay for your monthly medications could be up to 10 times lower, if you’re willing to shop around.
The recently released CR Secret Shopper Investigation surveyed more than 150 pharmacies in six metropolitan regions countrywide, searching for discounted retail or “cash” prices for a month’s supply of five commonly prescribed medications:
Generic versions of Actos, which is taken for diabetes.
Celebrex, for pain.
Cymbalta, for depression.
Lipitor, for high cholesterol.
Plavix, for blood thinning.
After months of research, CR’s secret shoppers found a $900 difference between the cheapest option and the most expensive.
Prices posted by HealthWarehouse.com — a publicly traded retail mail-order pharmacy — were the least expensive for all five drugs, totaling just under $100. But at the two-highest priced retail stores, CVS and Kmart, the costs for the same five drugs came to a whopping $1,000 bill.
Consumer Reports found that even among retail outlets in the same geographic location, prices varied considerably.
In Dallas, a month’s supply of the generic Cymbalta was $220 at Walgreens, $174 at Tom Thumb’s Supermarket Pharmacy, $40 at Costco, and $23 at Avita Pharmacy, an independent retailer. Walgreens price is nearly 10 times more than what consumers paid at Avita.
Why does this happen? While supply and demand rules over most of the consumer world, medical costs are governed by behind-the-scenes contracts between the big players in the prescription drug industry.
Contracts are negotiated among pharmacies, health insurance companies, and drug manufacturers, which can differ greatly from retailer to retailer.
That’s why shopping around for your prescription medications is important, and not just for the 9 percent of Americans who are uninsured.
According to CR, it may be more beneficial to pay cash instead of using your insurance for your prescriptions, depending on the retailer. This is especially the case for drugs that are not covered well, or at all, by your insurance, or for high-deductible plans that require a payment of more than $1,000 before your insurance kicks in.
If you’re looking to pay less for your prescription medications, here are a few ways to save big, based on the CR report:
“Lowest possible price, please.” When you go to the pharmacy, ask for the lowest price they can offer without going through your insurance, which could be less than your copay. Taking the initiative to ask about this can help pharmacists evade the “gag clause,” which could prevent them from such pricing transparency.
Try online pharmacies. Online pharmacies, like HealthWarehouse.com, often have lower prices than the competition. But it is important to take a look at the website’s domain before clicking “add to cart.” Make sure that the Website you’re using operates in the U.S., or that it ends in “.pharmacy” or carries the VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site) symbol, which indicates that the online pharmacy meets the standards set by the National Association of Boards Pharmacy.
Get a club membership. Buying clubs like Costco or Sam’s Club offer some of the lowest prices to consumers, and you don’t necessarily have to be a member to pick up your prescriptions there. The Sam’s Club in Dallas told a CR secret shopper that with a Sam’s Club Plus Membership, “generic Actos would be free, generic Plavix and Lipitor would cost $10, and there can be extra savings for generic versions of many drugs.”
Search for coupons. Online services like Blink Health and GoodRx offer coupons for prescription drugs, and even offer coupons for specific stores, allowing you to compare prices at home. And not only are these services helpful in saving money, they’re free to use, too.
Food shop and fill your prescriptions. Similar to independent pharmacies, some supermarkets offered pretty competitive prices for the market basket. While not every grocery store offers a low price for your prescription meds, it might be worth your while to see if your local supermarket offers a lower price than the pharmacy you’ve been using.
Ask for in-store discounts. At the higher-priced pharmacies, like CVS and RiteAid, pharmacists say that the chains often provide in-store discounts for customers. “Rite Aid offers hundreds of generic drugs for as low as $10 for a 30-day supply and $16 for 90 days,” CR reports. “But some of these discount programs can’t be used in conjunction with other insurance, including Medicare.”
Find your pharmacy. After shopping around and finding the best prices for your medications, fill all your prescriptions at the same retailer. Buying all your prescription drugs at the same pharmacy is vital, because it allows pharmacists to spot potentially dangerous drug interactions or other safety concerns.
“Using this information to shop around for meds can save consumers money,” Dr. Oly Avitzur, CR’s medical director, tells Newsmax Health. “With people often struggling to afford the drugs they need, it’s more important [to comparison shop] now than ever.”
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