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A drugstore tool we're not crazy about

Why discount cards from AARP, AAA, and others aren't always great deals

Published: December 2012

You may have seen discount cards from groups such as AAA, AARP, and others that promise to save you from 20 percent to 80 percent on prescription drugs. Problem is, it can be tough to find out if you’re really getting the best deal, as we learned when we tried to price a small market basket of drugs. Even our experts at Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs and our secret shoppers found it tough in some instances to get clear info about actual prices and how the cards worked. Here’s what we learned in our spot check, plus our experts’ advice for getting low prices.

It’s not easy to comparison shop at the pharmacy

We asked a secret shopper to call a dozen pharmacies nationwide to get regular retail prices (the price you pay if, like about 30 percent of people in the U.S., your employer doesn’t offer prescription-drug insurance) and discount-card prices on four common drugs. They included the antidepressant Cymbalta, generic Lipitor to lower cholesterol, Nexium for heartburn, and generic Plavix to protect against strokes and heart attacks. We asked for prices using five discount cards: AAA, AARP, Medco, NeedyMeds, and RxAssist.

Pharmacies gave us retail prices, but none was able to quote card prices over the phone. They all said that we’d need to come into the store with the card and sometimes a prescription.

Next we called the cards’ customer-service numbers and looked at their websites. We were able to get price info for four of the cards (all but NeedyMeds, which gave us prices only when we identified ourselves as a ShopSmart reporter; no prices were available on its website). But those prices were estimates and could change once we got to the pharmacy.

After that, we sent secret shoppers out to check some drugstores around our offices in Yonkers, N.Y. One of the five pharmacies said they would have to actually fill the script in order to quote us prices. Three pharmacies gave us prices but only for the NeedyMeds card. And our shopper wasn’t able to use Medco’s card because we had not yet received it in the mail. The others were simple to download and print at home. So that could be a drawback of Medco, as is its annual fee of $25 or $40 for a family. The others are free, although you do have to pay to be a member of AAA and AARP.

Great deals aren’t a given

Another thing that made it hard to compare deals was that the regular retail prices for some drugs can vary widely. For example, we found generic Lipitor (20 milligrams, 30 tablets) for as high as $154.99 at a Walgreens in Albuquerque, N.M., and as low as $17.13 at a Costco in Lancaster, Pa. So when the regular price is high, the cards might yield more substantial savings.But you might have to call around to get local retail prices. Though you may find estimates online, you won’t know exactly what the card savings will be until you get to the pharmacy, which makes it tough to comparison shop. In our spot check, we found a great deal on generic Lipitor: just $14.22 using a NeedyMeds card at a Walmart in White Plains, N.Y.

Store savings programs can be an easier option

You don’t have to sign up for discount cards in order to save money on prescription drugs. Many common generic drugs cost around $4 for a 30-day supply at Costco, Kmart, Target, Walmart, and others. And some stores offer their own discount programs for generic and brand-name drugs (you can get information about those programs at the pharmacy counters or at the retailers’ websites). Drugs covered by your insurance usually don’t qualify for further discounts, so be sure to check the terms before signing up. Also good to know: Some store programs may receive rebates, based on your drug purchases, according to Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, Pharm.D., an expert on drug pricing.

Editor's Note: These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin). 
   

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