Shopping around for prescription drugs can save you a lot of money. And doing so can sometimes mean that the least expensive option is paying the retail price instead of going through your insurance, a Consumer Reports investigation found.
Our secret shoppers called more than 150 pharmacies in six metropolitan regions around the U.S. asking for their retail cash prices for a one-month supply of five commonly prescribed drugs—basically the prices a consumer would pay without insurance.
The range in prices they found was stunning. The five-drug “marketbasket” cost just $66 at the online pharmacy HealthWarehouse.com but $105 at Costco. The two highest-priced national retailers—CVS and Rite Aid—had prices closer to $900 for the five drugs.
Victor Curtis, R.Ph., senior vice president of pharmacy at Costco, says, “We just price products as low as we possibly can and still make a modest profit.” Costco does that, he says, by offering a no-frills experience, with no 24-hour service and pharmacies closed on Sundays.
When we asked CVS and Rite Aid about their comparatively higher prices, representatives for each explained that there are in-store programs that can help lower prices for people who don’t have insurance.
But when we took new prescriptions to CVS and Rite Aid to verify what we were told, we got mixed results. Staff members at some pharmacies used store coupons and other vouchers to offer our shoppers much lower prices; others provided modest discounts or none at all.
For example, a Rite Aid store near our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., was able to get the price of atorvastatin, the generic version of Lipitor, down to just $18 from $300 through a combination of in-store and external discount programs.
But at another Rite Aid, we were told the cost could only be lowered to $127.
And while one CVS used discounts to lower our shopper’s cost by about $86, another said that we had to pay the store’s full retail price of $135.
When asked to comment on the different experiences our shoppers had at the two CVS stores, a company spokesperson, Mike DeAngelis, said that the pharmacy chain is now introducing new tools to make it easier for its pharmacists to help patients lower their high drug costs. He also said that CVS is educating staff members “in order to provide a consistent customer experience across our locations.”
A spokesperson for Rite Aid, Ashley Flower, said the company couldn’t explain the different experiences our shoppers had without talking with the pharmacy staff who actually helped them at each location.
Which Pharmacies Have the Best Rx Prices?
To find out, Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers called more than 150 drugstores across the U.S.—representing dozens of chain pharmacies, supermarket drugstores, and independent pharmacies—to compare prices for five commonly prescribed generic drugs. They included the diabetes drug pioglitazone (generic Actos, 30 mg); the painkiller celecoxib (generic Celebrex, 200 mg); the antidepressant duloxetine (generic Cymbalta, 20 mg); the cholesterol medication atorvastatin (generic Lipitor, 20 mg); and clopidogrel (generic Plavix, 75 mg), a blood thinner. This link shows average discounted retail prices that pharmacies quoted for a one-month supply. (All prices are rounded to the nearest dollar.)
Why It Pays to Shop Around
Shopping around for drugs is clearly important if you’re among the 9 percent of U.S. adults, or roughly 28 million people, who don’t have health insurance and must pay all of their drug costs and other healthcare expenses, says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director. But it can be worth the effort even when you are insured.
That’s because we found that the lowest retail prices in pharmacies can sometimes be a better deal than using insurance, especially in the case of drugs that aren’t covered well.
Yet many people seem unaware of how effective shopping around can be. In a recent CR survey, only 22 percent of current prescription drug takers who had paid more for their medication in the previous year said they comparison shopped for a better deal.
A caveat: If you have insurance but opt not to use it for your prescription drugs, the money you spend won’t count toward your deductible or your out-of-pocket maximum.
Save on Meds in 3 Easy Steps
By calling around and asking a lot of questions, our secret shoppers also identified several strategies that may help lower your drug costs.
Those questions included whether retailers would honor discounts found online (generally, yes) and match the lowest retail prices offered by nearby competitors (usually not).
CR staff also went to pharmacies in New York state to fill prescriptions and gain more insight about the in-store experience. We learned that it pays to do some research ahead of time, and when appropriate, ask some very direct questions of the pharmacist. Here’s our best advice:
Step 1: Find and use online discounts.
Start by trying GoodRx, Blink Health, or WeRx.org. They will ask for the name of the drug, the dose, the number of pills, and where you live. Then they will show what you can expect to pay at various pharmacies if you use their discount coupons or vouchers, which you can print out or download to your phone to show a pharmacist.
Step 2: Widen your scope of where to shop for drugs.
HealthWarehouse.com, an online pharmacy, had the lowest prices for our marketbasket of meds. Keep in mind that it won’t fill certain prescriptions, including Adderall and opioids like Vicodin.
Costco and Sam’s Club consistently had low overall prices and could be even cheaper with online coupons. (You don’t have to be a member to get those low prices, but if you do join—$60 at Costco and $100 at Sam’s Club—you could save even more.)
Also consider independent and grocery-store pharmacies. Prescription drug prices do vary greatly there, with some being very expensive. But the absolute lowest prices we found in each city we called were almost always at these kinds of stores.
Step 3: Ask a pharmacy directly whether it will honor discount online coupons.
Our shoppers learned that pharmacies will almost always honor them—but you may need to be persistent. Pharmacists tend to run prescriptions through insurance automatically, even when paying the retail cash price and using discount coupons would cost less.
There are in-store discounts, but they’re rarely applied unless you ask for them specifically. Third-party online discount coupons tend to be even deeper and more attractive. So ask for “all available” discounts, and then make sure to get the best option. Otherwise, pharmacists may simply use your insurance or, if you don’t have insurance, offer you a smaller in-store discount or even charge you the full retail price.
We found that it’s probably not worth asking if they will match the low prices offered at another store. None of the stores our secret shoppers contacted agreed to do that.
Once you settle on a pharmacy that consistently offers good deals on medication, fill all your prescriptions there. That makes it easier for pharmacists to spot potentially dangerous interactions and other safety concerns. But if you find that your drug costs start rising noticeably, it may be time to start the process all over again and find another primary retailer.