Take your Rx on a shopping trip

Not all pharmacies charge the same, and it may pay well to compare prices

Life After 50

October 20, 2002|By Korky Vann | By Korky Vann,Special to the Sun

Senior shoppers will go from supermarket to supermarket to get the best buys on groceries. But even with the spiraling cost of prescription drugs, many of those same consumers fail to compare the price of medications as carefully as they do produce or cereal, experts say.

The result can be an expensive mistake. Research by Professor Alan Sorenson of the University of California at San Diego, for example, found that drug prices vary significantly from store to store and from drug to drug. But despite the potential for savings, Sorenson's studies showed that when it comes to medications, consumers -- even those paying out of pocket -- rarely shop around.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, there is reason to shop around. A study by the department in 2000 found that individuals without drug coverage pay a higher price at retail pharmacies than those covered by insurance -- sometimes as much as 35 percent. It's not because your insurance is picking up more of the cost but because the insurance company has negotiated a lower price with the pharmacy.

Steve Slon, editor of AARP's Modern Maturity magazine, says older individuals may fail to check medication prices as closely as they check the costs of other purchases simply because they just don't think of it.

"Keeping your prescriptions at one pharmacy is convenient and helps you keep track of them, so it may not even occur to you to compare costs, but you should, especially if you have no drug coverage," Slon says. "Drug prices can vary 10 to 15 to 20 percent and more from one store to another and from mail-order company site to Internet site."

To be sure you're getting the most for your prescription drug dollars, Slon suggests checking with a wide range of retailers, including online, mail-order, independent and chain pharmacies, as well as pharmacies at supermarkets and national discount stores such as Kmart and Target before filling prescriptions. Have a list of all of your medications, including pill count and strength, when you call or stop by. Ask if the store charges a "minimum fee" to fill any prescription and if money can be saved by purchasing a larger number of pills.

Remember to ask if the store will match or beat the best price you can find. Some will, some won't, but it doesn't hurt to check.

Once you've identified the retailers who offer the best prices on the drugs you need, be sure to use the medicines effectively. In the United States, nearly half of all medications aren't taken as directed. According to the AARP, 14 percent of prescriptions are never filled, and 13 percent are filled but not used. Another 29 percent are filled but not finished.

"In many cases, seniors will get to the pharmacy and find out that the cost of their prescription is much higher than they expected, and they decide not to have it filled," Slon says. "Or they get it filled and then decide to take less then prescribed to 'make it go further.' Few tell their doctor what they're doing."

Slon says when his mother was prescribed an expensive arthritis drug that cost $90 a month, she decided to take just one pill each day rather than the two per day that had been prescribed.

"When I asked her how she was doing, she said it [the drug] didn't seem to be helping," Slon says. "The reason wasn't the prescription, it was the dosage."

To help older consumers avoid cost overdose, the AARP has published Drug Smart, a brochure offering advice from doctors nationwide. Some of their advice:

* Go generic. Generic drugs typically cost at least 50 percent less than brand name drugs, and the differences are minor. While flavorings or color may vary, the FDA requires that active ingredients be the same.

* Keep in mind that newer isn't always better. Sometimes the ticket to big savings is trading a new drug for one that's been on the market awhile. Check with your doctor and pharmacist.

* Request samples, particularly if you only need a one-time supply, but remember, brand-name drugs may cost a bundle when it's time to fill your prescription. If it's a drug you'll need to keep taking, ask if it's the most economical choice.

Korky Vann writes for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Advice from AARP

To order copies of the AARP's Drug Smart brochure, call 800-424-3410 and refer to Stock No. D17698. The information is also available on the publication's Web site at www.modernmaturity.org.

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