Shopping for Drugs

Health | Policy Reports

No. 262
Monday, June 02, 2003
by Devon Herrick

Executive Summary

As Congress debates ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, and state governments debate ways to lower drug costs for almost everyone else, it may be time to consider a commonsense solution: smart shopping.

Seniors, the uninsured and others who pay for drugs out of pocket do not have to wait for political solutions to the problem of rising drug prices. By becoming aggressive consumers, they can cut their costs substantially. In fact, the cost of some common drug therapies can be reduced by more than 90 percent using buying techniques consumers normally use to shop for other goods. But they should be forewarned. Patients buying drugs from multiple sources may forgo the safeguard of using a single licensed pharmacist who checks for drug interactions. To ensure this does not occur, patients should make all pharmacies they use aware of all drugs they are taking.

Consumers have never had more opportunities to obtain information about drugs. A patient with a prescription can find a range of prices by clicking on a few Internet pharmacy Web sites. The Internet also makes it easy to look up information on government and private programs that assist elderly, low-income and disabled patients with drug expenses. Additionally, Web-based services help patients find medications comparable to but cheaper than the ones they currently take.

Price Comparisons. Many people assume that drug prices are uniform and do not bother to comparison shop. In fact, drug prices vary considerably. One survey found that prudent shopping saved consumers almost 10 percent on branded drugs and a whopping 81 percent on generics, on the average.

Drug Substitution. When a drug is being prescribed, a patient should ask his or her physician if there are cheaper alternatives. Often there are.

Pill Splitting. All supermarket patrons know that choosing larger packages usually lowers the unit cost. The same is true of drugs. Patients can purchase many medications in doses double that of the prescribed amount and split them in half. Often, the pharmacist will split the pills for them. This saves money because many medications are sold for about the same price regardless of the dosage. Savings of 30 percent to 50 percent are not uncommon.

Generic Medications. For most patients, generic medications work just as well as branded drugs, and they cost 20 percent to 80 percent less. The average cost for a generic prescription was $14.70 in 2002, compared to $77.02 for branded medications.

Over-the-Counter Drugs. Patients often self-medicate with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Americans buy more than five billion OTC drug products each year - 60 percent of all drugs used. Today, consumers have access to a market with more than 100,000 different OTC drug products. More than 600 OTC drugs were previously available only by prescription.

Mail-Order Pharmacies. Although drugstore chains still sell the most drugs, mail-order pharmacies are gaining ground and now account for about 17 percent of the retail drug market. For patients with chronic conditions that require continuing medication, mail-order and Internet pharmacies offer the best deals on prescription drugs. Some patients even buy drugs from Canada and other countries over the Internet, although the practice is illegal and the drugs may not be safe.

Pharmaceutical Company Assistance Programs. Many drug companies have discount card programs to assist disabled, low-income and/or elderly individuals with the cost of drugs. For example, Together RX is a joint program run by several drug companies. It offers savings of up to 40 percent on more than 150 different drugs. Medicare beneficiaries earning up to $38,000 per couple qualify.

State Drug Assistance Programs. Slightly less than three-quarters of states have some type of drug assistance program for the low-income, the elderly and/or people with disabilities. Just over half of the states help seniors pay for drugs with state funds, while nine states have drug discount programs that allow seniors to purchase drugs at below-retail prices.

Potential Savings. How much can patients expect to save by using these techniques? We reviewed prices on Web-based pharmacies during the first quarter of 2003. We found that prices for the cardiovascular drug Tenormin, for instance, varied widely:

  • In our survey, the price of 100 (50mg) doses of Tenormin ranged from $121.90 at to $100.77 at AARP.
  • Patients can save at least 75 percent over the lowest cost for the brand-name drug by switching to the generic alternative Atenolol.
  • For the generic drug, prices ranged from $25.33 at to $9.60 at
  • Thus, consumers can lower the cost another 30 percent (from $9.60 to $6.75) by buying larger pills (100mg) and splitting them in half.

Smart buying of this drug lowers the potential overall cost by 94 percent - from a high of $121.90 to a low of $6.75. Another example of potential savings is the antianxiety drug Xanax:

  • In our survey, the price of 100 (0.5mg) doses of Xanax ranged from $121.30 at AARP to $109.92 at
  • The generic substitute Alprazolam promises savings of at least 77 percent.
  • Among the generics, the price ranged from $25.33 at Eckerd to $12.00 at
  • Buying the larger dose (1mg) of the generic from and splitting the pills in half cuts the cost from $12.00 to $6.00, another 50 percent reduction.

In all, patients can reduce the cost of Xanax from $121.30 to $6.00 - a 95 percent decrease - through smart buying techniques.

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