It Pays to Shop Around for Prescription Drugs, Study Finds

A bottle of prescription pills
(Image credit: Prescription photo via Shutterstock)

The next time your doctor writes you a prescription for a new generic drug, channel your inner bargain hunter and shop around, as it could save you a lot of money, a new survey from Consumer Reports has found.

When secret shoppers called more than 200 pharmacies around the United States to check the total price for a month's supply of five top-selling prescription drugs that recently went generic, they discovered an overall 447 percent difference — or $749 — between the highest- and lowest-priced stores.

"When blockbuster drugs go generic, a lot of irrational pricing happens," said Lisa Gill, editor of prescription drugs at Consumer Reports.

For the survey, secret shoppers gathered pricing information for five blockbuster drugs that had recently gone off patent, which allowed generic versions to enter the marketplace: Actos (pioglitazone), prescribed for diabetes; Lexapro (escitalopram), an antidepressant; Lipitor (atorvastatin), prescribed for high cholesterol; Plavix (clopidogrel), a blood thinner; and Singulair (montelukast), an asthma medication.

Pharmacies surveyed included big-box stores, like Costco and Walmart; national chain pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens; online retailers and; supermarket pharmacies; and smaller, independent pharmacies.

Overall, Costco had the lowest prices for each of the generic drugs checked. What's more, people didn't have to join the club to use the pharmacy, Gill said.

Some of the smaller, independent pharmacies also offered affordable prescriptions.

"That was the real shocker," Gill said. "Prices at independent pharmacies were all over the map for these drugs." 

Among the national chain stores, CVS, Rite Aid and Target were the priciest, according to the survey.

For example, a month's supply of Actos (30 mg dose) was $101 at Costco, compared with $160 at Walmart and $295 at CVS. Prices at independent pharmacies and supermarkets ranged from $37 to $393. The cost was $141 and $140, respectively, at and

At Costco, a month's supply of Singulair (10 mg dose) was $27, compared with $57 at Walmart and $165 at CVS. Prices at independent pharmacies and supermarkets ranged from $10 to $193. Both and charged $29.

Location also affected pricing, with urban pharmacies tending to have higher prices than rural ones. For instance, an independent pharmacy in Raleigh, N.C., charged $203 for a 30-day supply of Actos, while a rural North Carolina store charged just $37, Gill said.

Why prices vary

One reason for the lower costs at big-box stores is that their pharmacies are intended to "build traffic," said Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, professor of pharmacy economics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who was not involved in the survey. In those stores, pharmacy sales account for less than 5 percent of total revenues, he added.

By contrast, big chains like CVS and Walgreens, as well as independent pharmacies, rely on prescription sales to make up a bigger chunk of their revenues — in turn, bumping up prices at those stores, Schondelmeyer explained.

However, consumers may be willing to pay more at other stores because they offer convenience or other perks, Gill said. For example, Costco pharmacies are generally open from 10 a.m. until 7:00 or 8:30 p.m. and are often closed on Sundays, the survey found. By contrast, CVS has a 24-hour pharmacy service, automated prescription refills and drive-through windows. Also, stores like CVS and Rite Aid have more locations than Costco, allowing consumers to save time and gas.

Money-saving strategies

The wide range of prices found in the survey is not the norm for generic drugs that have been on the market for more than a year, Schondelmeyer said. Therefore, the time to comparison-shop is when a popular drug first goes off patent. Typically, the prescription price will drop to about one-tenth of its name-brand price during the first year it is on the market, and then stabilize.

Gill gave the following tips for keeping prescription drug costs down:

Go generic, if possible. Generic drugs usually cost less than brand-name drugs.

Request the lowest price. Don’t assume the first price quoted is the lowest, Gill said. Some of Gill's secret shoppers told pharmacy employees they were paying out of pocket and asked if a better price were available. In some cases, it was. Also, ask about student and senior discounts.

Visit smaller towns. Urban areas are generally pricier than rural areas.

Ask for a 90-day supply instead of a 30-day refill. Discounts on three-month supplies are common.

Consider paying the retail price. The survey found that Costco, drugstore websites and some independent pharmacies charged less than the co-pay of some insurance companies.

Check out additional discounts. Many chain pharmacies, big-box stores, club stores and large supermarkets have discount prescription programs, Gill said. For example, Walmart charges $4 for a 30-day supply of some generic medications, but $10 for a 90-day supply. She noted that the programs may not include every dosage of a drug, and many do not allow people to use insurance to pay for the drugs.

Schondelmeyer cautioned against pharmacy-hopping, no matter how tempting the deal is.

"I am all for consumers being wise shoppers, but it is important that people get all their medications from one pharmacy," he said. That way, the pharmacist can check for possible drug interactions and make sure one drug doesn't cancel out the benefits of another.

Pass It On: Shopping around for prescription drugs can save you money.

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Contributing writer