Bonnie Hitts sits in her home day in and day out. She’s confined to her bed and suffers from chronic pain due to fibromyalgia.
Hitts pays at least $160 a month for her medications, but her prescriptions cost even more than that.
Senior Neighbors – a Kent County group that helps people older than 60 –pays for the rest. And because Hitts has to rely on others to pick up her prescriptions, she sticks to one pharmacy to make it easier.
But what she didn’t know was costing her a lot of cash. Hitts did not realize that prescription costs vary from pharmacy to pharmacy. In fact, Target 8 investigators discovered one of Hitts’ prescriptions cost $109.99 at one pharmacy but only $46.82 at another pharmacy.
“That scares me because since I can’t go from pharmacy to pharmacy to pharmacy to get the best price, I’m just stuck with whatever they tell me I have to pay,” Hitts said.
Target 8 checked prices for several top-selling prescription drugs at major pharmacies and uncovered a stunning gap in prices. Consider azithromycin, an antibiotic; it costs $11.99 at CVS, but you’ll pay more than double that at Target, where it costs $34.99.
Another example – a blood pressure medicine named Norvasc – costs $22.72 at Meijer. At Costco, it costs $7 for the prescription.
But the largest price difference Target 8 investigators found was with Plavix, a blood thinner. It costs $149.99 at CVS, but only $13.25 at Costco.
Target 8 went undercover to find out how pharmacists themselves explain the price gap.
One acknowledged that prices are all over the place, going on to say that they “don’t seem to make any sense.”
Another pharmacist gave her theory on why big box stores may charge less than individual pharmacies.
“They make all their money on groceries, whereas we have to make all of our money on prescriptions because people don’t usually buy much stuff like that, so it’s just really different everywhere,” she explained. She went on to say customers will get more individual attention from a pharmacist at a smaller shop.
Target 8 investigators also checked the price of Plavix at Family Fare, where it cost $115.79. Again, that price was a far cry from Costco’s $13.25.
Still, SpartanNash manager of Pharmacy Services, Chris Smith, says the company’s pricing is fair.
“When you consider 24 free medications and almost 300 low-cost medications, you know we think that our pricing strategy is sound,” Smith said.
Smith didn’t fault people for shopping around, but said it can be dangerous if pharmacists don’t know what medications customers are getting somewhere else.
“While a lot of people think that [prescription drugs] are safe and tested, that’s very, very true, but sometimes in combination, they can have some very bad consequences,” he explained . “Keeping it with one pharmacy makes sure that all those checks are taken.”
Target 8 also got insight from Mike Koelzer, the owner of Kay Pharmacy in Grand Rapids. He said he doesn’t think pricing medicine $100 more than competitors should be illegal, but he does consider it a poor business strategy.
“I don’t think it’s smart. You know, me as a business person, if I’m selling a product and I’m priced way outside of the market, it’s going to catch up to you,” Koelzer said.
But even Koelzer charges for medications Target 8 discovered you can get free elsewhere.
Kay Pharmacy charges about $9.49 for metformin, a diabetic medication, which is not as costly as CVS’ price, which charges $17.39. But you can get metformin for free at Family Fare and Meijer.
“And then there’s an old saying my dad had, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Koelzer said.
Koelzer said customers should look for a catch. If a store makes one prescription free, Koelzer said it’s most likely jacking up the price on others.
Meanwhile, Bonnie Hitts isn’t looking for free medication, she just wants it fair.
“I don’t know how they can fluctuate like that, she said. “It’s just not right. Like I said, people like me, we can’t go around and stop and start and stop and start. So you know we’re going to have to do something to get pharmacies so they all have to have one price.”
So what can you do to find the best price on your prescriptions? Target 8 discovered websites that list prices for you.
One site, http://www.goodrx.com, also offers coupons for various medications.
Another one, http://michigandrugprices.com, was initially set up in 2006 by the Michigan Department of Community Health. But Target 8 investigators tested the prices on the website and found they are not always accurate.
For example, fluoxetine, an anti-depressant, was listed as $95.09 at one pharmacy, but when Target 8 called, the price as quoted as $10.43.
The site does suggest patients call pharmacies to check prices, since they can change daily.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office says consumers are welcome to file complaints if they believe a pharmacy is engaged in price gouging.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette issued this consumer alert to provide tips on how to shop around safely for prescription medications. The AG’s Office says consumers are welcome to file a complaint if they believe a pharmacy is price-gouging.