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Shopping Around for Best Prescription Price Pays: Consumer Report

Update Date: Mar 28, 2013 02:23 PM EDT

Many people assume that they will receive the best deal on their prescriptions at their neighborhood pharmacy. However, for people who may need to go without insurance for some time, it often pays to shop around. According to a recent report, the differences in costs could add up to a difference of as much as $749 for all five drugs.

Consumer Reports performed the study by asking secret shoppers to call 200 pharmacies across the country. The shoppers asked for the generic versions of five best-selling drugs: Actos (pioglitazone), for diabetes; Lexapro (escitalopram), for depression; Lipitor (atorvastatin), for high cholesterol; Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner; and Singulair (montelukast), for asthma.

Overall, Costco had the lowest prices. Some independent pharmacies, particularly those in rural areas, also had low prices. Online pharmacies could help cut costs as well. On the other end of the price spectrum were Target and specialty pharmacies, like CVS and RiteAid.

When talking to Consumer Reports, a representative explained that the prices were indicative of other services provided by the pharmacy chain, like a 24-hour pharmacy, drive-through windows and automated prescription refills. The organization seemed to take offense to the characterization though, telling ABC News that "pricing surveys do not accurately reflect what most pharmacy customers pay for their prescriptions given various value, discount and third-party insurance programs."

"Big-box stores such as Costco and Walmart use the pharmacy as a traffic builder for their stores, whereas traditional chain stores, such as CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens, make the majority of their revenue and profits from the pharmacy," Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, from the University of Minnesota, said to Consumer Reports.

In order to save money, the magazine offers a number of workarounds. Always ask for the lowest price; sometimes pharmacists offered it, but other times they gave secret shoppers the list price. It can pay to leave the city; one independent pharmacy in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina charged $203 for a generic version of Actos. An independent pharmacy in the rural part of state charged just $37. Also, buy 90 days of the medication at a time if you can; many pharmacies offer a discount for a three-month supply, and that allows you to have medication on hand if there is an emergency.

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