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Prescription drug prices vary widely at pharmacies, report shows

Consumers who don’t shop around for their prescription drugs may be paying significantly more.

Drugs Money Three Bottles IMG_9792Failing to comparison shop could result in overpaying by as much as $100 a month or even more, depending on the drug, Consumer Reports said in the May issue of the magazine.  

Consumer Reports compared drug prices for five top-selling drugs that have recently gone generic, including heart drugs Lipitor and Plavix. It found that Costco offered the lowest retail prices overall and CVS charged the highest. 

While consumers can find low drug prices at Costco, consumers may find a good deal too at their local independent pharmacies, Consumer Reports said.  

Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers called more than 200 pharmacies throughout the nation to get retail prices – what you would pay without insurance – on a month’s supply of five best-selling drugs that have recently become available as generics: 
  • Actos, pioglitazone, for diabetes.
  • Lexapro, escitalopram, an antidepressant.
  • Lipitor, atorvastatin, for high cholesterol.
  • Plavix, clopidogrel, a blood thinner.
  • Singulair, montelukast, for asthma. 

The result? A difference of $749, or 447 percent, between the highest and lowest priced stores.

Some price comparisons

If you shop around, you could find a month’s supply of generic Lipitor at a cost of $17 at Costco. However, if you purchase it from CVS, you could pay $150. That’s a difference of $133. Rite Aid and Target were also pricey, the Consumer Reports’ shoppers found.

For the antidepressant Lexapro, a month’s supply of the generic version cost $7 at Costco and $126 at CVS. Rite Aid, grocery stores, and Walgreens also charged high prices on average, Consumer Reports found.

Generic Plavix, which is prescribed to people with cardiovascular disease, was also available at widely varying prices. For example, on the low end, a month’s supply was available at $12 through and $15 at Costco, while CVS quoted $180 when Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers asked about prices.

For the market basket of drugs Consumer Reports checked, independent and grocery store pharmacies’ prices varied widely between stores, sometimes offering the cheapest and the most expensive price for the same drug.

How to save

  • Request the lowest price. Consumer Reports’ analysis shows that shoppers weren’t always given the best, lowest price. Make sure you ask.
  • Go with generics. Generics are copies of brand-name medications whose patents have expired. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that generics contain the same active ingredients in the same strength as the brands they copy. In addition, a generic must be “bioequivalent” to its corresponding brand, meaning that it delivers the same amount of active ingredients into a person’s bloodstream in the same amount of time as the original brand. 
  • Leave the city and shop in rural areas. Consumer Reports found that some grocery-store and independent drugstores had higher prices in urban areas than rural areas. For example, Consumer Reports shoppers priced a 30-day supply of generic Actos at a pharmacy in Raleigh, N.C., for $203, while another pharmacy in a rural area of the state sold it for $37. 
  • Get a refill for 90 days, not 30 days. Most pharmacies offer discounts on a three-month supply.
  • Look for additional discounts. All chain and big-box drugstores now offer discount generic-drug programs, with some selling hundreds of generic drugs for $4 a month or $10 for a three-month supply. Just make sure your drug is on the list. Offers vary and check the fine print.

The report is available where magazines are sold, in libraries, and online at

Copyright 2013, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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