Shop Around if You Pay for Pills

Survey Shows Prices Vary Vastly at Drugstores, Sometimes More Than $100 for the Same Medicine

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 05, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

May 5, 2008 -- If you shell out cash for prescription drugs, you may want to shop around for the best price.

That's according to a new survey from Consumer Reports. Researchers from the magazine made more than 500 telephone calls to 163 pharmacies in the U.S. to compare prices on four popular prescription drugs, three name brand drugs, and one generic at 13 different stores and web sites.

It found that prices varied wildly even from one chain drugstore to another, sometimes more than $100 for the same prescription. The least expensive prices were found at Costco; the most expensive were at Rite-Aid.

Four out of five adults take medicine or supplements in any given week, according to the survey. It also found that nearly a third of all adults take five or more medicines or supplements a day.

Americans reportedly spent $287 billion dollars on prescription drugs in 2007. That's five times as much as was spent in 1993. That figure is expected to double by 2017.

  • In 2002, 65% of prescription drugs were covered by insurance.
  • In 2007, 33% of prescription drugs were covered by insurance.

Consumer Reports also had survey responses from 40,133 readers offering their opinions on drugstores and purchasing drugs.

It seems that fewer of us are talking to a pharmacist when we go to pick up a prescription or supplements. The survey found that respondents asked a pharmacist for advice on prescription drugs 38% of the time during walk-in visits. For over-the-counter remedies, that number dropped to 29%.

(Do you shop around to find a better deal when it comes to buying your medications? Tell us what works on WebMD's Mental Health: Medications and Treatments board.)

What to Ask the Pharmacist

In 2002, the Consumer Reports drugstore survey showed that half of those respondents talked to their pharmacist about prescription drugs and 37% sought out a pharmacist concerning other nonprescription products.

If you do ask your pharmacist for advice, Consumer Reports offers questions to ask your pharmacist:

  • Do you have my prescribing history? (including over-the-counter medications, vitamins and supplements, any allergies or bad reactions to drugs)
  • If I feel better, can I stop taking the medication, or does it have to be finished?
  • When and how should I take the medicine?
  • Does it need to be taken before, during, or after meals?
  • Can the medicine be crushed rather than being swallowed whole?
  • Is there anything else that I'm taking that can interact with this, or are there any other drugs, foods, drinks, or activities to avoid?
  • Does taking a medicine three times a day mean three times in a 24-hour period or 3 times during the waking hours?
  • What should I do if I forget to take a dose or take too much?
  • Are there any side effects?
  • When should help be sought if symptoms continue?
  • Can you help with any special needs (for example, larger lettering on labels)?

Other Findings

More people buy pills and supplements online with only chain drugstores having higher sales.

Independent drugstores get the thumbs up. Readers liked that mom and pop drugstores were approachable, employees knew about the products, there was not much waiting time, and some offer home delivery.

Other tips:

  • Generic drugs can cost 20% to 50% less than brand name drugs.
  • Some stores offer discounts for people over 50, or give breaks to people who do not have insurance.

The report is published in the June 8 issue of Consumer Reports.