If you regularly take prescription meds, our national telephone poll shows that you're probably shelling out at least $700 per year. To help you keep some of that money in your pocket our secret shoppers worked the phones, making more than 200 calls to pharmacies to get retail prices—the cash price customers not using insurance would pay—for a month's supply of five common generic prescription drugs: atorvastatin (the generic version of Lipitor), to lower cholesterol; clopidogrel (Plavix), a blood thinner; duloxetine (Cymbalta), to treat depression; montelukast (Singulair), for asthma; and pioglitazone (Actos), used to treat type 2 diabetes.
After all of that, we uncovered five common money-wasting mistakes that drug shoppers can easily make, along with smart advice about what to do instead so that you don't spend a dime more than you need to.
Mistake No. 1: Shopping the closest pharmacy in your area
You need a prescription filled, so you head to the store closest to you. Sounds logical, right? But traveling just a bit farther might yield big savings, especially if you aren't paying with insurance. (We'll explain why you might want to do that later.) You might think that prices would be about the same from one store to another, but that's not always the case. When our shoppers called around to various pharmacies, they were quoted different—sometimes hugely different—prices for the same drugs. For example, a month's supply of duloxetine cost $220 at Kmart and Walgreens in Raleigh, N.C., but $55 at a nearby Costco.
What to do instead Before you head to your usual drugstore, call a few pharmacies—even a supermarket—and ask what they would charge for your prescription.
In addition to getting different prices from different pharmacies, our secret shoppers sometimes were quoted different prices from the same pharmacy! Often, the best deals were not the first price quoted.
Instead, our shoppers had to ask, "What is the lowest price you can give me?" Case in point: A Target pharmacy in Des Moines, Iowa, first quoted a price of $191 for duloxetine. Our analysis suggested that the price was too high, so we called again and asked for the lowest price the store could offer. Our new deal: $160. But we got a price of $7.50 at an independent pharmacy 7 miles away. (That's not a misprint!)
What to do instead: Always ask for the lowest price. And even if you have insurance, ask for the best cash price so that you can compare it with your co-pay. (More on that later.) Also ask about any senior, student, or other special discount to see whether you qualify for an even better deal.
If you've overlooked your local mom and pop pharmacy because you figured it probably charged more than the bigger chain stores, you might be missing out on some good deals. Our secret shoppers found rock-bottom prices at indies in Dallas, Denver, and other cities, with generic prices comparable to the lowest average prices we found nationally, at Costco.
Two of the best deals we found: montelukast for $10 at Cherry Creek Pharmacy in Denver and clopidogrel for $4 at Davis Drugs, in Kenley, N.C. But we also found high prices at some local shops. Our secret shoppers found pioglitazone for wildly different prices at two independent pharmacies in the Des Moines, Iowa, area. One store charged $328 for a month's supply; another charged $20.
What to do instead Try negotiating. Independents might be more willing to give you a deal because they may have more discretion than the big chains over the prices they charge. To find out, make a few phone calls. You might be surprised. (We were!) Independent pharmacies may also match $4 prices offered by chain pharmacies. Your best bet is to take the chain store's list and show it to the independent pharmacist.
In many states, you can fill prescriptions at Costco without being a member. Our shoppers found that Costco's retail prices were much lower than other stores'. For our market basket of five prescription drugs, buying a month's supply at Costco would save hundreds over the other stores.
What to do instead: Although Costco pharmacies may close earlier in the evening than some chain stores, it's worth checking out their prices, especially if you pay out of pocket for your drugs. And if you are a member, you can use the Costco Member Prescription Program, which can net you savings of as much as 40 percent off brand-name and generic meds if you don't have drug coverage.
If you take certain medications long term and you're making a trip to the pharmacy to fill your prescription every month, you might be wasting time and money.
What to do instead: Check with your insurance company to see whether you can get three months' worth of medication at a time. If you can, ask your doctor to write you a 90-day prescription. You could save big—by paying one co-pay instead of three, for example. Plus you'll save time by not having to make multiple trips to the pharmacy.
This article previously appeared in ShopSmart May 2015 issue. These materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is financed by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).