Are you paying too much for prescription pills?

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The cost of prescription drugs continues to soar, and that’s pricing a number of Kansans out of much-needed medical care. Two years ago, KSN took an in-depth look at the cost of medication and how much those prices vary by pharmacy.

That hasn’t changed; and since then, more drug companies have been accused of jacking up the cost of life-saving meds to simply boost their bottom lines. So we went back to work, to help those of you paying entirely too much for prescription drugs.

A Personal Story

Even with company sponsored health care and the Affordable Care Act, we still find thousands of uninsured Kansans are falling through the cracks. One Wichita woman says she’s running out of options, and is now left to pick and choose the medicine she takes, each day.

“It’s $42 for 12 pills, and I have to take four at a time and it lasts me three weeks.”

Kathy Willis bemoans the cost of one of her most expensive prescriptions to combat Rheumatoid arthritis. Methotrexate is one of about ten prescriptions she takes each month to control the symptoms. She was first diagnosed three years ago and the problems are only getting worse.

“It feels like I got hit by a truck every morning,” she said. “Some days I can’t get out of bed. Other days I can, but the pain doesn’t go away.”

On those days, she’s able to work part time taking care of her mom, who’s also dealing with mounting health problems. That’s her only source of income.

Her husband was recently laid off, and she says the down payment for Obamacare is more than they can afford. So she pays as much as she can out of pocket for medication. If she filled every prescription, it could cost close to $150 a month.

“I find myself taking my pills every other day,” she admits. “They’re not going to work that way.”

Looking for help

There aren’t a lot of options for people like Willis. The Medical Service Bureau in Wichita provides help to those at 150-percent of the poverty level or less.

“I understand corporate America and their motivation is probably profit,” Executive Director Jean Hogan said. “Our motivation is to be the good neighbor and help individuals who are struggling on a day to day basis.”

But they receive very little state money, and because their funds are so limited, they have to cap payouts to those who rely on their services.

“They really helped me,” Willis said. “But so many people need help with medication they can only allow so much per year, and mine was used up in three months.”

The Medical Service Bureau checks on drugs costs each day to try and find the lowest price possible and we decided to do the same to help those without insurance do more with less.

KSN Prescription Drug Survey

We reached out to nine nearby pharmacies, both locally owned and national chains, to ask strictly about cash prices for the uninsured. Gessler’s has gone out of business since our last survey and CVS now operates Target’s pharmacy, as well.

They refused numerous requests to be a part of this project, instead giving us a statement that said, in part, “98-percent of our pharmacy business is covered by third party prescription insurance in which customers only pay a co-pay.”

So, the Medical Service Bureau provided us with information they received from CVS on cash prices. And like our past research, the cost disparity among pharmacies is still a major issue.

“I can’t believe some of the pricing differentiations,” pharmacist Robert Tubbs told us, “especially when I know how much the medication costs.”

Tubbs works at locally-owned Dandurand Drugs. They offer the cheapest price for Willis’ Methotrexate at $33.36. K-Mart’s price is the highest at $53.71.

But K-Mart also offers a number of $3 generics with a $10 membership, including the Meloxicam she needs. It’s ten times that much ($33.99) at both CVS and Walgreens.

There are more staggering examples of the price gap beyond the meds Willis takes. Damm Pharmacy in Derby offers the anxiety drug Escitalopram for $18.30 a month. The same prescription is about $120 at both Walgreens and CVS. A 100-pill supply of the pain-killer Percoset is $65 at Dandurand. At Dillons, it’s $271.

Click chart for printable version of the KSN Prescription Drug Price Survey
Click chart for printable version of the KSN Prescription Drug Price Survey

The Epipen

“You hear the stories of a particular medication on the news, that’s just a microcosm of pharmaceutical drug costs in general,” Hogan said.

That particular medication is the Epipen, an emergency injection to combat severe allergic reactions. Its cost has jumped almost 400-percent since 2007. There’s no cheap option, but Costco listed the lowest confirmed price at $480.

Sam’s Club offered an epinephrine alternative at $434 for a two pack suggesting a generic may become a more affordable option. A 100-dollar plus membership creates even deeper discounts at
Sam’s and provides a few prescriptions for free.

Our Conclusion

“I would definitely shop around; I would definitely compare prices,” Tubbs reminded us. “We’re not the cheapest on every drug here.”

The biggest question is why.

In part, the big box stores can absorb losses in insurance reimbursements with some of the other products they sell. Some lure customers in with a greatly reduced generic list, but hike the prices of other drugs to make up the difference.

But be careful going to the cheapest pharmacy for each prescription, and make sure to ask about price matching. A number of the stores we surveyed say they do that when they can.

“I wouldn’t recommend filling one here, one here and one here because that gets you in trouble with the medications,” Tubbs warned. “A pharmacist isn’t going to be able to check for those drug interactions.”

So with that advice, we went back to share our findings with Willis.
Our study shows she could save more than $56 a month by going to the lowest pharmacy for each one of her medications. But Kathy doesn’t have a car, and that kind of transportation would be nearly impossible. So we also suggested an alternative.

If she simply filled her three most expensive prescriptions at Costco, it would save her more than $42 a month.

It proves that if you’re willing to put in the time to compare prices, you may ultimately save yourself hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each year on prescription drugs.