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A little detective work can save you hundreds on prescription medications

By Mark Stevens and Debbie Dujanovic, KSL TV  |  Posted May 8th, 2018 @ 7:20am


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SALT LAKE CITY — The cost of prescription drugs can make an unaffordable Utah even tougher to live in. But the KSL Investigators found it pays to shop around to cut down high prescription drug costs if you’re paying cash rather than going through insurance.

It worked for one Utahn, who was quoted wildly different prices for the same medication.

Amateur beekeeper Steven Olson said he can handle getting stung.

“On occasion, you get used to it,” said Olson.

But Olson said he prefers not to get stung at the pharmacy counter.

“Something is amiss in how these are being priced out,” said Olson.

He explores the world with his family and takes a generic prescription to fight jet lag. “It really helps because it gets you back on your schedule,” said Olson.

When Olson’s health insurer denied the claim for the drug, he set out to pay cash at his local CVS Pharmacy. The price grounded him: $861.99 for a one month supply of pills.

“That was just a shocker,” said Olson.

So he did something he’s never done before. He called another pharmacy.

Costco quoted Olson a price of $37.07 for the exact same generic Provigil (Modafinil) CVS was charging $861.99 for. That one call saved him almost $825. That’s a 96 percent savings.

The KSL Investigators decided to put a common cholesterol drug to the same test. For a one month’s supply of Atorvastatin, we called Walgreens, Smith’s, and Costco and asked for the cash price. Walgreens quoted us $149.99, Smith’s said it charged $34.49, and Costco said it charged $16.53. In less than ten minutes of calling we discovered we could save $133.46.

Consumer Reports price shopped recently too. It saved $131 on generic Plavix and $182 on generic Cymbalta. They price shopped five common medications and saved $862.

So what’s going on?

Photo: KSL TV

Pharmacies, insurance companies, and other middlemen haggle prices, like you or I would shop for a used car. The catch is, a good price for them may not be the best price for you. Plus, no one regulates drug prices and drug companies can charge whatever they want.

Pharmacist Ryan Abeyta, the pharmacist in charge of Hillcrest Pharmacy in Midvale said, “It’s all about how they price their drugs and where they’re trying to make their money.”

The KSL Investigators obtained a manufacturer's price chart for the drug Olson takes for jet lag. It showed the manufacturers prices vary wildly. Pharmacies paid anywhere from $18 to $650 for a one month supply.

We asked CVS why not go with the cheapest manufacturer?

Spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said, “We make every effort to ensure our retail prices for prescription drugs are competitive in the marketplace. Generally speaking, our retail prices for prescriptions are in line with or less expensive than those of our major retail pharmacy competitors.”

He also explained why Olson saw such a huge price difference for his generic prescription Modafinil.


"You just want to find a pharmacy where the pharmacist or someone on the staff has time to take a few minutes and talk about the prices.” - Ryan Abeyta, pharmacist

“However, due to varying business models and operational costs, there may be greater price differences for some medications between a retail pharmacy such as CVS Pharmacy and other types of businesses that operate pharmacies, including warehouse stores,” said DeAngelis.

He also pointed out CVS launched a prescription savings finder in its retail pharmacies last month, allowing pharmacy staff to identify the lowest cost options for a patient filling a prescription.

There are many options for consumers to cut costs. During our phone calls for Atorvastatin, the Walgreens technician said the drugstore offered an annual prescription discount membership for $20, which would have cut the price for our 30 day supply of Atorvastatin by $80. The Smith’s technician said they would price match another store’s drug price if we found a lower price, which we did.

Abeyta said, “There’s always a solution, you just want to find a pharmacy where the pharmacist or someone on the staff has time to take a few minutes and talk about the prices.”

We found other ways to cut down your prescription costs too.

Ask if a different form of the drug is available that’s cheaper, like a capsule instead of a tablet, or a cream instead of a pill.

And if you use insurance, ask if there’s a cheaper pharmacy you can order from. One of our colleagues saved nearly $60 on a common cholesterol drug by switching to a mail order pharmacy.

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