Do chains or independent pharmacies offer the best generic pricing?

February 1, 2016

After secretly shopping at 200 stores in six states, "Consumer Reports" announced its findings, and they make for very interesting reading.

While independent pharmacies say it is difficult for them to compete against large retail chains’ $4 generic drug programs, a new survey finds that they can offer better prices on some other generics.

After secretly shopping at 200 independent and chain pharmacies in six U.S. cities, Consumer Reports recently published an article that found a wide variance in the prices quoted for generic drugs. Prices of products offered at independent stores were different - lower in some cases and higher in others - from those found at large retail chains.

See also: Any solutions to the sudden price spikes for generics?

While investigators found both lower and higher prices for generics at independent stores, shoppers often had better luck asking for a lower price on their generic prescription drugs from independents, “where pharmacists might have more flexibility to match or beat competitors’ prices,” the article stated.

The article suggested several ways for consumers to save money on generic drugs, including skipping chain drugstores and some supermarket chains. According to Consumer Reports, the best prices for generic medications were found at Costco.

Hard to beat $4 generics programs

Among the independent and chain pharmacists who spoke with Drug Topics, opinions were equally varied.

“There is not a lot we can do, if you’re a patient who is in the chains’ programs or you use the $4 prescription programs. I can’t compete with those,” said Peter Wolfe, Sr., owner of a longstanding independent pharmacy, Wolfe’s Pharmacy in Chauvin, La. “But if your prescription is not in a program, you sometimes pay double what you would pay at an independent.”

See also: How retail pharmacists can combat generic drug pricing spikes

Wolfe said he can’t compete with the $4 generics programs offered by chains such as Walmart and Walgreens because “I don’t let a prescription walk out of here for less than it costs to dispense it.”

On the other hand, Jeff D’Angelo, pharmacy manager at a Walgreens store in Rensselaer, Ind., believes patients can save money on generics at chain drugstores. “At Walgreens, we have our Prescription Savings Club Program. It’s a yearly membership fee, but you can get several hundred drugs for a 90-day supply for as little as $10,” he said. “Patients should be looking into the discount programs offered by the chains and buy a 90-day supply. They would do a lot better than if they are buying a regular supply.”

However, Wolfe doesn’t agree that chain pharmacy’s 90-day programs will always save patients money. “The prices of generics are going up and co-pays are coming up. Also, patients could have money invested in a 90-day supply, and then the doctor takes the patient off that medication.”

 

Generic drug prices vary greatly

Strangely, the Consumer Reports investigation found a wide variance in generic drug prices from retailer to retailer, even in the same city. For example, a month’s worth of one patient’s generic Cymbalta ranged from $249 at a Walgreens store to $43 at Costco. However, the Walgreens pharmacist suggested using the store’s discount program to lower the price to $220.

In Dallas, a patient who was quoted a price of $150 for generic Plavix at a CVS store received a quote of $23 at Preston Village Pharmacy.Patients who asked for a discount often received one, according to the article. At a supermarket pharmacy outside of Des Moines, Iowa, a shopper was first quoted a price of $75 for generic Actos. However, after asking whether there was a better deal, she was offered the drug for $21, according to Consumer Reports.

“It sounds crazy that you would need to approach buying prescription medications as you would a used car - by shopping around and haggling. But that’s the reality of today’s pharmaceutical marketplace,” Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, PharmD, PhD, a pharmacoeconomics professor at the University of Minnesota and a Drug Topics' editorial advisor, told Consumer Reports.

Schondelmeyer believes that the wide variance in generic drug pricing between pharmacies arises because large chains such as CVS and Rite Aid set high retail “list” prices, which help determine the amount insurance companies will pay for the drugs.