Pharmacy Buying Guide

Big changes are coming to the nation’s 60,000 pharmacies, with Amazon talking about getting into the prescription drug business and the nation’s largest chain, CVS, teaming up with health insurer Aetna to make a one-stop shop for customers.

But a Consumer Reports survey of more than 78,000 members shows that, overall, people still prefer “mom and pop” pharmacies more than big chains. These independents still are at the top of the ratings chart for overall satisfaction and earn top scores for the pharmacist’s knowledge, the accuracy of filled prescription orders, and the pharmacy’s customer service, including courtesy, helpfulness, and speed of checkout and filling prescriptions.

In addition, more than half of members in our ratings sample who get their prescriptions from an independent pharmacy said their pharmacist knew them by name.

For independent pharmacies competing in a fast-changing environment, “it is part of their DNA to provide stellar customer service,” says Doug Hoey, president and CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents 22,000 independent pharmacies across the U.S. “The people behind that counter who run these pharmacies and own these stores, it’s what they believe,” Hoey says.

With so many choices, consider these when deciding which is the best pharmacy for you.

Pill Savvy: What to Consider

Do you have to wait for service? You're less likely to wait at an independent pharmacy than at another type of store, according to our survey. Only 3 percent of customers at independent pharmacies reported that they waited a long time at the pharmacy counter to be helped; 18 percent said the same of pharmacy chains.

And members who used an independent pharmacist were far more likely to say that the pharmacy went out of its way to fill prescriptions faster: Forty-one percent of people said that happened at independent pharmacies vs. just 20 percent at pharmacy chains.

Are your medications in stock? Overall, 21 percent reported that a drug they needed was out of stock in the past year. As a group, independents were more likely than other types of pharmacies to fill the prescription later that same day or the next.

How much will you pay? Members who went to independent pharmacies were also more likely to report that the pharmacist suggested a lower-cost drug—21 percent—while only 9 percent reported chain pharmacists offering them a lower-price option. Worse, national chains tended to have some of the highest out-of-pocket prices. While prices at independents fell in the middle, CR members said they found the lowest prices at Costco (you don't have to be a Costco member to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy). CR secret shoppers found that some independent and grocery store pharmacies can offer even lower prices than Costco—you'll just need to call around in your area and ask for their "cash" or retail price. See more below on how to save money on your meds. If you have health insurance, double-check your plan to be sure you're getting the lowest prices at your pharmacy. Some plans—through Medicare Part D or an employer—have negotiated discounts with "preferred" pharmacies or mail-order plans.

Does your pharmacy offer discounts? Many stores offer deals on commonly prescribed generics for people who pay for the prescription outright rather than using insurance: $4 for a 30-day supply or $10 for three months’ worth. But check the fine print. There may be a small fee to sign up, and not all discount programs are open to people on Medicare, Medicaid, and Tricare (the health plan for the military). And aside from those $4 and $10 deals, we found that the discounted prices at retail pharmacy chains were often still higher than the out-of-pocket price you pay at Costco.

Does your pharmacy offer preventive care? Rules vary by state, but many drugstores now offer vaccinations for chickenpox, the flu, hepatitis A and B, human papillomavirus (HPV), measles, pertussis (whooping cough), pneumonia, polio, shingles, and tetanus. Stores that provide travel immunizations, including Target and Walgreens, also cover vaccines for meningitis, typhoid, and other diseases.

Some pharmacies offer health and wellness programs. For example, Walgreens will perform a weight analysis based on waist circumference, body mass index, and body composition (percentage of body fat and skeletal muscle), as will some independents. Kroger pharmacies and others offer smoking-cessation programs. If you try one, be sure that the pharmacist is certified and trained to provide such counseling, and let your doctor know that you've entered the program.

Do you need personalized services? Do you ever forget to take medications? Some independent pharmacies place pills in individualized packets so that knowing which pills to take at which times is easy. Walmart and Rite Aid do something similar if you ask for the service, as does an online pharmacy called PillPack. Need customized medication? Most independents offer compounding to tailor medication for specific needs. They can make a medication without a certain dye for a patient with an allergy, for example, or create a liquid version of a drug for a patient who has trouble swallowing pills. Independents may also specialize in stocking certain medical items such as walkers, canes, oxygen, and ostomy supplies.

Bonus: They know you. A whopping 53 percent of members said independent pharmacists knew their name. Only 14 percent of people could say the same of chain pharmacies.

Tips for Switching Pharmacies

Changing pharmacies isn’t difficult, but you need to follow all the steps to make sure that everyone involved in your family’s healthcare has up-to-date information. Here’s what to do.

Let the new druggist handle transfers. Much of the work to transfer prescriptions, including remaining refills, is done electronically these days. Depending on your state laws, refills for controlled substances might not transfer, in which case you’ll need to have your doctor issue a new prescription.

Do the paperwork. Your pharmacy should have a complete profile of every family member, including insurance information, medical history, and a list of every drug taken—prescription and over-the-counter—as well as vitamins, herbs, supplements, topical preparations, and even medical marijuana in states where it’s legal, including CBD-only products (cannabidiol).

Notify your doctors. It will save time and confusion later if you call your doctors’ offices and update the pharmacy information in your file.

Try to fill all prescriptions at the new store. Once you’ve found a drugstore that offers everything you need, it’s safest to fill all your prescriptions there if you can. That’s because your pharmacist can check for all possible drug interactions and alert you if there are any issues. “Jumping around might save you a few dollars here or there, but it’s bad in the long run because no one place will have a complete medical profile,” Hoey says.

How to Save on Medicine

Millions of Americans are still being hit with skyrocketing drug costs. The pain is worse for those without drug coverage, but even many people with insurance are facing rising deductibles and copays, or finding that their plans no longer cover their specific drugs.

If you're facing high drug costs, one of the first things to do is ask your doctor whether a generic drug is available for your condition. That can save you as much as 90 percent. Savvy shoppers can also save in several other ways, especially if you opt to pay the retail, cash price:

Consider Costco, independents, and supermarket pharmacies. In a recent Consumer Reports secret-shopper survey, Costco usually charged the lowest cash prices for prescription drugs, while some independents had prices that were even lower than Costco’s. Some supermarket pharmacies also offered good deals.

Try skipping insurance. In certain cases, you might find that the price you’d pay without insurance is less than your copay. For example, the diabetes medication metformin sells for just $4 for a 30-day supply, or $10 for a 90-day supply, at stores such as Walmart, while a copay for a month’s worth averages around $11. One caution: If you don’t use insurance, money spent on your medication won’t count toward your deductible or copays.

Shop around. If you opt to pay cash for your meds, know that CR secret shoppers have found wildly different prices within the same ZIP codes when pricing a sample market basket of drugs. And in a recent CR nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 Americans, 22 percent of people who had recently experienced price increases in the cost of their prescription drugs said they had started to shop around for better deals.

Ask about discounts. Because pharmacies might automatically process prescriptions through insurance, you probably won’t be offered cash discounts unless you ask about them. Our secret shoppers found that calling to ask can prompt the person on the phone to help find discount programs, cards, or coupons.

Try 90-day prescriptions. Many insurance plans require you to pay only one or two copays instead of three for a 90-day supply, so it’s worth asking your healthcare provider for a three-month prescription for medications you take on a regular, ongoing basis. For those paying cash, most pharmacies will charge you less per pill when you purchase several months’ worth, so be sure to inquire.

Look for discounts online. Sites such as Blink HealthGoodRx, and WeRx are a good place to start. They offer coupons and prepaid vouchers, which, if you’re not using insurance, can help you get the lowest deal possible for drugs you fill at retail pharmacies in your area. Have your drug name, dosage, and quantity in hand, and use their location lookup tools to compare prices at various pharmacies.

Or skip the walk-in store entirely and try a site like, which we found to have very low prices.

Good to know: Use an online retailer only if it displays the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal, indicating completion of a voluntary accreditation program through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Also use only pharmacies based in the U.S. Once you've verified that a retailer is legit, read terms carefully. For example, ships to all 50 states; others might not. And note that this works best for drugs you don’t need right away, because you’ll have to wait for shipping.

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