Make comparisons to find medicines at the best price

Searching and comparing prescription drug prices can save you a lot of money. And doing so can mean that sometimes the cheapest option is to pay the store price rather than through your insurance, a Consumer Reports investigation found.

Our secret shoppers called over 150 pharmacies in 6 metropolitan regions across the United States, asking their in-store price for a month’s supply of 5 commonly prescribed medications—basically, the prices a consumer would pay without insurance.

The range in prices they found was surprising. The 5-drug “market basket” was just $66 at online pharmacy but $105 at Costco. The two highest-priced retailers: CVS and Rite Aid, had prices closer to $900 for all five medications.

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Victor Curtis, R.Ph., Costco’s senior vice president of pharmacy, says, “We just price as low as we can to keep a moderate profit.” Costco does that, he says, by offering an essential experience, without 24-hour service and with its pharmacies closed on Sundays.

When we asked CVS and Rite Aid about their comparatively higher prices, representatives from each explained that in-store programs could help lower costs for people without insurance.

But when we took new prescriptions to CVS and Rite Aid to check what they told us. Staff at some pharmacies used store coupons and other vouchers to offer our shoppers lower prices; others offered small discounts or nothing.

For example, a Rite Aid store near our offices in Yonkers, NY, reduced the price of atorvastatin, the generic version of Lipitor, to $18 from $300 through a combination of in-store third-party discount programs.

But at another Rite Aid, we were told the cost could only be reduced to $127.

And while one CVS used discounts to reduce our shopper’s cost by about $86, another said we had to pay a total store price of $135.

When asked for feedback on the different experiences our shoppers had at the two CVS stores, a company spokesman, Mike DeAngelis, said the pharmacy chain is now introducing new tools to make it easier for pharmacists to help patients Reduce the high cost of their medications. He also noted that CVS is training its staff “to offer a consistent customer experience across our pharmacies.”

A Rite Aid spokeswoman, Ashley Flower, said the company couldn’t explain the different experiences our shoppers had without speaking to the pharmacy staff who had helped them at each location.

Why does it pay to compare prices?

Shopping and comparing prices is very important if you are among the 9% of adults in the United States, or about 28 million people, who do not have health insurance and must pay the total cost of medicines and other health services, says Orly Avitzur, MD, medical director of Consumer Reports. But it may be worth it even if you are insured.

We’ve found that lower prices at pharmacies can sometimes be a better option than using insurance, especially for drugs that aren’t well covered by insurance. Keep in mind that he doesn’t fill any prescriptions, including Adderall and opioids like Vicodin.

Still, many people seem unaware of how effective shopping and comparison shopping can be. In a recent CR study, only 22% of prescription drug users who had paid more for their medications than in the previous year said they had shopped around to find a better option.

One caveat: If you have insurance but decide not to use it for your prescription drugs, the money you spend won’t count toward your deductible or maximum out-of-pocket limit.

By Cary Grant

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