Pharmacies can charge different prices for their prescription drugs

Most of the American public doesn’t know that different pharmacies can and do charge drastically different prices for their prescription drugs. Does that surprise you?  It sure surprised me when I found this out a few months ago in my medical school class.

I consider myself well educated. I’m a college graduate and in the throes of professional school — in healthcare nonetheless. I have an open mind and I read quite a bit. But I still wouldn’t have guessed that Coumadin would cost my uninsured father in Texas $15 for thirty pills at CVS, but only $4 for the same number of tablets at Walmart (I can actually vouch for this number).

I would have thought it was safe to assume that drug prices are comparable across the board. After all, that’s how it usually works, right? When I buy gum, I have faith that I won’t pay triple the price at one convenience store compared to another. But with pharmacies, this just isn’t the case.

When we call a shopper “smart,” we assume that there are options to choose from and information to help choose between those options. That’s the market, and it keeps costs down for the consumer while encouraging the suppliers to find bigger and better ways to provide their product. If we don’t have options, or we don’t have information, we can’t have “smart” shoppers. A convenience store can charge me $6 dollars for gum, and if I have no way of knowing that gum usually costs $2, I’ll pay it. I can’t be running around with bad breath.

That’s why transparency is so important to the prescription medication consumer. Few of us have any idea as to how much drugs should cost. And, since many states don’t require their pharmacies to release their drug costs unless someone is buying them, the consumer has no convenient way of amassing the information it needs to choose from the options. Sure, I could make a trip to every nearby pharmacy and ask, but when is the last time you called ten different airlines to find the lowest price? When I buy airfare, I use one website that shows me the lowest fares for my trip from a range of different flight providers.

Why should buying prescription drugs be any different? What’s more, a transparent pharmaceutical pricing system seems to make sense no matter what side of the political spectrum you call home. For conservatives: don’t you love a market that pits different companies against each other to increase performance and lower costs? For liberals: isn’t affordable medicine for the uninsured enticing? It works for everyone and it’s the right thing to do, so let’s get it done.

Arvin Akhavan is a medical student who blogs at Leslie’s List, which provides information that enables all patients, but especially the uninsured and underinsured, to find more affordable medications and health care services.

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