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Shopping Around for Prescription Drugs Pays Off (Part 1)

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This segment originally aired November 7, 2005.

Studies show that Americans are buying more drugs, and they're getting more expensive. The Kaiser Family Foundation says the number of prescriptions increased 70 percent between 1993 and 2003. On top of that, retail prices have grown more than seven percent each year in the same time period. CAL-PIRG recently found San Diego is the second most expensive city in the nation to buy prescription drugs. So Reporter Rebecca Tolin launched an investigation to find out more.

Prescription drugs prices vary widely around town. You might be spending ten times more at one pharmacy than another right down the street. So if you're one of those people who heads to the corner drug store without price checking, you might be getting gouged. Jim Knight, Consumer Directed Healthcare CEO: "Flights to Hawaii would be very unpopular if when you got there they gave you a bill for how much it costs and you didn't know in advance."
Jeff Taniyama, Costco Pharmacy Manager: "Call around, check prices, everywhere. Start with pharmacies in your area."

On Phone: "Thank you for calling Wal-Mart. How may I help you?"
Rebecca Tolin: "Yes, can I have the pharmacy please?"

Knight: "If you don't know what you could have saved in another environment then they're free to raise the price because they gotcha, you walked in and bought it."

Joe Bitterman, Longs Drugs Pharmacies District Manager: "$159.95. So the trick is to make yourself aware what the savings could be and to vote with your feet."
We comparison shop for vacations, cars and computers. But many of us don't price check for prescription drugs. With escalating prices, Full Focus set out on a mission, by phone.
Madelyn Warner, Full Focus Researcher: "Hi, I was calling to get prices of seven different medications."

Tolin: "I'm curious if you could check the generic and the name brand."

On Phone: "The generic is $5.49."

Warner: "$5.49?"

On Phone: "Mmm, hmmm."
And by foot . Basically we are checking seven medications, 30-day supply, one pill a day. The first one is Zyrtec in 10 milligrams. We surveyed 50 pharmacies -- from big box to mom and pop. What we learned: prices for prescription drugs vary widely -- in some cases more than a thousand percent. Same drug. Different price.
Tolin: "A lot of people don't even think to price shop. Is it my right as a consumer to get prices from pharmacies?"

Taniyama: "Absolutely. The state board requires us to provide consumers with pricing if they so ask for them. So we will... you know if you call up on the phone and you want a price. We'll let you know what it is."
So we compared seven popular prescription drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac. The price ranged from $115 at Balboa Pharmacy to $250 at Fletcher Medical Pharmacy. That's a 117 percent difference. The generic drug Fluoxetine is much cheaper but has a big range -- as low as $6.49 at Costco up to $80 at Medical Arts Pharmacy in La Mesa. The disparity: $73.55. And if you compare the lowest cost generic to the highest priced brand name, the difference is stark: more than $243.
Knight: "There could be as much as 10,000 percent difference, a hundred times difference for some very expensive medications if you could find the right generic equivalent at the lowest possible cost as compared to going to the wrong store and buying the most expensive brand name."
Dr. Jim Knight says generic drugs are just as effective as brand names. They're the same chemical compound. Knight recommends generics for his cost-conscious patients.
Lynda Hunt, Prescription Drug Shopper: "I have to take these for the rest of my life is what I'm told. So I believe the practitioners who tell me."
Lynda Hunt is invested in finding the least expensive medications. She takes two generic drugs -- Synthroid for a sluggish thyroid and Atenolol for high blood pressure. When Hunt shopped around, what she found at Sam's Club surprised her.
Hunt: "Now I can afford my medication much more easily, although anywhere from $20 to $30 a month depending on how much prescription I pick up. It's still pretty costly if you add up all the months in the year. But nevertheless I could be paying five times this much."
Hunt's move from a corporate job to director of a non-profit senior center forced her to become more frugal.
Hunt: "We're going to have 25 crafters or people who are going to bake goods."
Hunt doesn't have prescription drug benefits in her health plan. That's more common than you might think. 6.6 million Californians are uninsured -- almost 20 percent of the population. And another 3.3 million seniors are on Medicare -- with limited or no drug coverage.
Hunt: "The Patrician is over by UTC. It's a beautiful senior housing complex."
Hunt feels fortunate she can afford her medications. But says many seniors are forced to gamble with their health.
Hunt: "People will forego their medication in order to eat, they will forego their medication in order to pay the rent. They will make decisions based on, 'Well, I'll skip a day and catch up next week.'
Knight: "The first thing is to make sure your doctor is aware that you have a concern. You're not paying $20 no matter what, a co-pay, that you're actually going to be buying this stuff. And so the doctor may be able to provide you with a prescription that is therapeutically going to give you the same outcome but save you a bunch of money."
Dr. Knight says some drugs have a less expensive formulary alternative -- that is a similar medicine in the same class. In some cases, a cheaper drug may have the same therapeutic value. If your prescription drug is an expensive one, sometimes it pays to see if there's an over the counter variety. Zyrtec for example, will cost you about $60 a month at Costco while Claritin is about half the price with twice as many tablets. Ask your doctor but pharmacists say they're both non-drowsy antihistamines that will treat allergies about the same.
Taniyama: "Claritin is now over the counter. You can buy it just right off the shelf. And in addition to that we have our Kirkland brand anti-allergy which is similar to Claritin and we also have another produce called Allercare."
300 Tablets of Allercare costs just under $12 at Costco. Compare that to Claritin and the prescription drug Zyrtec. The lowest price we found: $58.99 at Sam's Club. While Balboa Pharmacy 34ed us $99.99 for the same exact strength.
Tolin: "So it would be one a day for 30 days. Zyrtec, 10 milligrams."

Taniyama: "That's $60.19."
Some pharmacies will match a lower price, if you ask them. Dr. Knight says knowledge is your most powerful weapon.
Knight: "An informed consumer who has access to the information in advance of the decision to purchase can dramatically change the marketplace. I mean, that's how it works."

Hunt: "Previously I was paying five times as much going to other pharmacies that are attached to grocery store chains."
Comparison shopping helps Lynda Hunt manage a limited budget. The active downtown woman says staying healthy on the job and at home also cuts down on the number of medications she needs. For Hunt, less stress is priceless.
Hunt: "Be it through exercise, meditation, something as simple as going out to dinner with your husband and having a good evening can lower your stress. So I keep that in mind in the way we live our lives makes a difference to the medication and how much we need to take."
Find out which pharmacy has the lowest prices for seven common prescription drugs on the Full Focus web site.

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