Common assumption about prescription drug prices can cost you

SEATTLE -- A trip to the doctor's office brought a shock for Summer Shaw. Not by the diagnosis, but when she went to get her prescription filled.

Her doctor wrote up a 60 day supply of pills. Her Walgreens pharmacist gave her a 30 day supply that cost $68.

"My insurance only covered so much, so I just paid for it," Summer said. "I was like, well I need it. I need to use it, so I'm just going to pay for it."

When the pills ran out, Summer transferred her prescription to Fred Meyer. This time, she got all 60 days for just $8.

"Huge! I mean I was flabbergasted!" she said of the difference. "I was under the impression it was all the same price, they couldn't charge you any different. It's the medication. I always thought the brand of the medication set the price. That's what I was under the assumption of."

It's a common assumption that can cost you money.

Like everything you buy, you can shop around for prescription drugs.

Surprised? So was Summer's physician, Dr. Linda Petter.

"It was a rude awakening. And I was angry and I was frustrated," Dr. Petter said. "And I thought, 'how can this be?' "

Dr. Petter stumbled across the problem after getting a prescription filled for her husband. The price seemed high.

"It was by accident I found this out. And the more investigation I did, I realized it was much more widespread. And in fact if it was happening to me, it was definitely happening to my patients," she said.

The Problem Solvers put that theory to the test. We had prescriptions for four women who were getting the same three drugs, all covered by the same health insurance. They fanned out to different pharmacies.

Across the board, the nasal spray Fluticasone was $15.

But the consistency ended there.

Cephalexin, an antibiotic, was $4 at Fred Meyer, $6.99 at Costco, $14.85 at Walgreens and $15 at Rite Aid. And remember, all the women have the same health insurance coverage.

Things got more complicated with prescriptions for a 90 day supply of the anti-depressant Paroxetien. Fred Meyer charged $10. It was $15.99 at Rite Aid.

Both pharmacies filled the entire 90 day prescription.

But Costco and Walgreen's only bagged up a 30 day supply. Costco charged $12.86 and Walgreens charged $15.

Why so different? Pharmacies don't always run your insurance.

Their cash price could be a better deal, and an astute clerk will switch to that to save you money. But how much you save depends on your pharmacy.

Because when it comes to cash, it gets competitive.

Costco's Senior Vice President of Pharmacies Victor Curtis told the Problem Solvers, "I am disappointed we didn't have the lowest cost, but we're always looking for the lower price point in every situation, and this no different."

He said Costco was already shopping around for a supplier who charges less for Paroxetien.

And Walgreens, which was among the most expensive pharmacies in our test and for patient Summer Shaw, said the women could have paid less if they joined the company's Prescription Savings Club.

"More than 2 million people take advantage of our Prescription Savings Club, which offers more than 400 generic medications for a dollar a week," Walgreens spokesman Robert Elfinger said when asked to comment to KOMO News. "The program also offers deep discounts on more than 8,000 brand name and all generic medications and is an attractive option for patients without health insurance or for patients who take medications that are not covered by their health plans. Drug prices for the less than 3 percent of patients who pay cash for all their prescriptions are based on the drug manufacturer's price, other operational factors and local competition."

But when the women picked up their prescriptions, no one at the pharmacy suggested a club membership - which costs $20 a year for an individual.

"It just is appalling to see other companies take advantage of their customers," said Shaw. "It's not right. It's not fair."

Rite Aid spokesman Eric Harkreader says many factors go into drug pricing, "including cost of a location, utilities, the overhead to operate the pharmacy and the professional services that the pharmacist provides Just like a doctor, the pharmacist is there to provide expert advice and answer questions about patients' medications. We monitor our chain drugstore competitors to help ensure we are competitively priced.

Both Costco, Walgreens and Rite Aid all suggested looking for a good price, but also for the place with the best service.

Costco's Curtis said, "It's an advantage to a consumer to shop at one pharmacy that has the whole scope of what you take and can apprise you of negative interactions. That's where you gain the leverage of their professional knowledge."