Prescription drug prices can vary significantly between pharmacy operators, a comparison by Consumer Reports finds.

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Consumer Reports: Big disparities in Rx prices

March 28th, 2013

YONKERS, N.Y. – Prescription drug prices can vary significantly between pharmacy operators, a comparison by Consumer Reports finds.

The consumer advocacy group said Thursday that consumers who don't research and compare prices may be overpaying "big time" for their prescriptions — by as much as $100 a month or more, based on the medication.

Consumer Reports said it compared drug prices for five leading prescriptions drugs that recently went generic and found that Costco offered the lowest retail prices overall and CVS charged the highest.

For the study, Consumer Reports' secret shoppers called more than 200 pharmacies nationwide to get retail prices — i.e. what consumers would pay without insurance — on a month's supply of five branded drugs now 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 difference of $749, or 447%, between the highest- and lowest-priced stores, the research revealed.

Consumer Reports secret shopper findings included the following:

• If you shop around, a month's supply of generic Lipitor runs $17 at Costco and as much as $150 at CVS. "Rite Aid and Target were also pricey," Consumer Reports said.

• For Lexapro, Consumer Reports found a month's supply of the generic version available for $7 at Costco and $126 at CVS. Rite Aid, supermarket pharmacies and Walgreens also charged high prices, on average, according to Consumer Reports.

• Prices varied widely for generic Plavix. For example, at the low end, a month's supply of the generic cost $12 at and $15 at Costco, while CVS quoted $180 when the secret shoppers asked about prices.

• For the market basket of drugs examined, independent pharmacy and supermarket pharmacy prices varied widely between stores, sometimes offering the lowest and the most expensive price for the same medication, Consumer Reports found.

The bottom line: Consumers may be able to lower their prescription costs by shopping around.

"A consumer can't assume that the price of their prescription medications is set in stone," Lisa Gill, editor for prescription drugs at Consumer Reports, said in a statement. "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."

Gill added that the sizable cost fluctuations, in part, reflect the differences between the various kinds of retail operators. "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," she explained.

To rein in prescription costs, consumers should request the lowest price — which isn't always given — as well as go with generic drugs and get a refill for 90 days, Consumer Reports suggested.

Shoppers also should consider a pharmacy's locale, as secret shoppers found that some supermarket pharmacies and independent drug stores had higher prices in urban areas than rural areas. For instance, a 30-day supply of generic Actos at a pharmacy in Raleigh, N.C., was priced at $203, while another pharmacy in a rural area of the state sold it for $37.

Consumers, too, should seek additional discounts. Consumer Reports noted that all chain drug stores and big-box retail pharmacies now offer discount generic programs, with some selling hundreds of generic drugs for $4 a month or $10 for a three-month supply.

Gill also pointed out that while some drugs are prescribed for a short term, others may be lifetime drugs, so consumers should look 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," she stated. "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."