Prescription drugs not so cheap at some pharmacies: Tips for consumers

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Tips for getting the best price on your prescription drugs

If you are on multiple medications and without prescription drug coverage, even temporarily from being in the Medicare coverage gap, you will be interested in a new Consumer Reports investigation showing where to get the cheapest prices on your meds. TIP: It may not be CVS pharmacy according to the report, but there may be more to the story.

The report unveiled 5 generic and popular medications that can vary in price as much as $749 for a 30 day supply. Secret shoppers found Costco offers the lowest markup on generic Lipitor, Plavix, Singulair, Actos and Lexapro.

Lipitor, sold generically as atorvastatin, costs $17 at Costco and a whopping $150 a month at CVS according to the report.

But in all fairness to consumers and CVS, you can also get a discount card. With a coupon that can be found with a simple internet search, the cost of generic Lipitor at CVS is $16.63 for a month supply. Consumers only need to ask the pharmacist to help them get the best price – an important note if there is not a Costco in your area.

Unfortunately, in the secret shopper drug pricing study no CVS employee provided the discount medication price over the phone. The 'shoppers' called more than a dozen of the pharmacy chains around the U.S. "Instead, shoppers were quoted a price of $149.99 in every instance'" said Lisa Gill, editor for prescription drugs at Consumer Reports in an e-mail.

Gill explained there was a single employee who mentioned 'discounts were available' but never offered specifics. Gill says it is important for consumers to ask pharmacies "Is that the cheapest price you can offer?"

In fact, CVS took exception to the report, according to In an e-mail a spokesperson said, “Pricing surveys do not accurately reflect what most pharmacy customers pay for their prescriptions given various value, discount and third-party insurance programs.”

Another example of how to get prescription drugs cheaper is to explore local resources. Some States, such as South Carolina, offer patient assistance drug card for free and CVS is their preferred source to obtain medications. Most stores are happy to print the card for their customers.


Why the wide variations in prescription prices?

Stephen Schondelmeyer, a professor of pharmacy economics at the University of Minnesota, wrote in the report, “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.”

Nevertheless, past studies have shown Costco does have the lowest prescription drug prices compared to any other pharmacy across the board. Costco also has a prescription savings program, like CVS, that can save 2 to 40 percent on medication costs, depending on availability, but for those without drug coverage. You do not have to be a member to access the pharmacy.

For the ‘secret shopping’ report 200 pharmacies were contacted by the consumer group.

Some independent pharmacies were even cheaper than Costco, the group found, but prices still varied widely.

Tips for getting the best price on your prescriptions:

  • Ask your doctor for generic: Most brand name drugs have a generic alternative that can save money. If you are considering stopping a medication due to cost, do speak with your doctor. It only makes sense that your health care provider would rather prescribe a lower cost alternative versus no therapy that can lead to higher rates of re-hospitalization.
  • Ask the pharmacist for the best price: If you don’t ask, you won’t get it. When Consumer Reports called the pharmacies they were sometimes quoted the discounted price, but not consistently.
  • Check out independent drugstores: When the group left the city searching for urban independent pharmacies they were able to find pretty good prices on drugs, though not always. Generic Actos sold generically as pioglitazone, cost $37 at one independent pharmacy. At another in the city of Raleigh, N.C., the cost was $203.
  • Purchase 90 days at a time: Almost all pharmacies offer a discount for a 3-month supply of prescriptions. Another thought aside from cost is that buying for 90 days can ensure a supply of medications should an emergency arise.

Regardless of which pharmacy you choose, a warning from the Consumer Reports group is to obtain your prescriptions in one place to avoid confusion and drug interactions. Looking for cheap prescriptions might take some investigating. Gill recommends using pharmacy discounts whenever possible that vary from store to store.

The report highlights what some consumers might already have known. There are indeed wide variations in prescription drug prices, depending on what pharmacy you use. You should also consider mail order options that might be available through your own prescription drug plan. You can also check out to see if you qualify for any free generic or brand name medications. For a small handling fee, you can obtain a discount drug card.

Consumer Reports Magazine
May, 2013

Image credit: