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Release Date: 03/28/2013

Consumer Reports: So Many Drugstores, So Many Prices; New Report Finds Price Mayhem at the Pharmacy

Tips for getting the best prices when you shop at the pharmacy; plus, why it pays to shop like a country mouse

CR May 2013 CoverYONKERS, NY — Consumers who don’t shop around for their prescription drugs may be overpaying BIG time, explains Consumer Reports in its May issue.  Failing to comparison shop could result in overpaying by as much as $100 a month or even more, depending on the drug.  

Consumer Reports compared drug prices for five blockbuster drugs that have recently gone generic, including heart drugs Lipitor and Plavix, finding that Costco offered the lowest retail prices overall and CVS charged the highest.   The report is available wherever magazines are sold and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.  

And while Costco is a good bet for low drug prices, consumers may find a good deal too at their local independent pharmacies.   “A consumer can’t assume that the price of their prescription medications is set in stone. One of the big takeaways is that you have to ask for the best price and see if your pharmacist will work with you.  Especially for the independent pharmacies, if they want to retain your business and loyalty, they will help you get the best price,” says Lisa Gill, editor, prescription drugs, Consumer Reports. 

One reason for the wild cost fluctuations may be that different types of stores have different business incentives, says Gill.  “It really comes down to a store’s business model. For example, big box stores tend to use their pharmacies as a way to get consumers through the door with the expectation that they’ll buy other things.”          

Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers called more than 200 pharmacies throughout the U.S. to get retail prices (what you would pay without insurance) on a month’s supply of five blockbuster drugs that have recently become available as generics:  Actos (pioglitazone), for diabetes; Lexapro (escitalopram), an antidepressant; Lipitor (atorvastatin), for high cholesterol; Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner; and Singulair (montelukast), for asthma.  The result? A whopping difference of $749, or 447%, between the highest and lowest priced stores.

Some price comparisons:

  • If you shop around, a month’s supply of generic Lipitor will set you back $17 at Costco, CR’s secret shoppers found.  However, if you fail to do your homework and purchase it from CVS, you could pay $150.  That’s a difference of $133.  Rite Aid and Target were also pricey. 

  • For the antidepressant Lexapro, Consumer Reports found a month’s supply available of the generic version at a cost of $7 at Costco and $126 at CVS.  Rite Aid, grocery stores, and Walgreens also charged high prices on average.

  • Generic Plavix, which is prescribed to people with cardiovascular disease, was also available at widely varying prices.  For example, on the low end, a month’s supply was available at $12 through Healthwarehouse.com and $15 at Costco, while CVS quoted $180 when CR’s secret shoppers inquired about prices.  

  • For the market basket of drugs CR checked, independent and grocery store pharmacies’ prices varied widely between stores, sometimes offering the cheapest and the most expensive price for the same drug. So consumers should shop around.

HOW TO SAVE

Bear in mind that while some drugs are prescribed for a short term, others may be lifetime drugs, so you want to get the best price for the long haul.  “If your doctor prescribes Lipitor, you may be taking it for the rest of your life.  So it can really pay to shop around. You could save yourself thousands of dollars on that one medication,” says Gill.   “Talk to your doctor about lower cost alternatives in the same class of drug. And make sure you have that talk when your doctor is about ready to write the prescription.  Once you’re taking a drug and tolerating it well, your doctor might be less inclined to try alternatives,” says Gill. 

Some tips for saving:

  • Request the lowest price.  CR’s analysis reveals that shoppers weren’t always given the best, lowest price. Make sure you ask.

  • Go with generics.  Generics are copies of brand-name medications whose patents have expired.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that generics contain the same active ingredients in the same strength as the brands they copy.  In addition, a generic must be “bioequivalent” to its corresponding brand, meaning that it delivers the same amount of active ingredients into a person’s bloodstream in the same amount of time as the original brand.  Read more about generics at ConsumerReports.org.

  • Leave the city and shop like a country mouse.  CR found that some grocery-store and independent drugstores had higher prices in urban areas than rural areas.   For example, CR shoppers priced a 30-day supply of generic Actos at a pharmacy in Raleigh, N.C., for $203, while another pharmacy in a rural area of the state sold it for just $37. 

  • Get a refill for 90 days, not 30 days. Most pharmacies offer discounts on a three-month supply.

  • Look for additional discounts.  All chain and big-box drugstores now offer discount generic-drug programs, with some selling hundreds of generic drugs for $4 a month or $10 for a three-month supply.  Just make sure your drug is on the list. Offers vary and check the fine print.

About Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications.   Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

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