Buyer beware: Even generic drugs vary widely in price

News-DemocratNovember 15, 2013 

A friend of mine mentioned other day that she had been told by someone about drugstores charging wildly different prices for generic drugs. I thought she might have misunderstood because I always thought that generics were supposed to be relatively cheap, so I thought I'd ask you for the facts directly. -- Jennifer Holland, of Fairview Heights

Even with generic drugs, it's wise to follow the old pop-song advice that "you'd better shop around." Otherwise, your wallet could wind up with a very bitter pill to swallow.

As you note, that's not what most people probably think. Once a company loses exclusive rights to a drug and others begin to manufacture generic versions, the price is supposed to plummet.

And that's the way it seems to work for older, established generics. In fact, just recently my doc prescribed three generics, and the prices surprised me in a good way -- $2, $6 and $10.

But when new generics first come onto the market, all bets might be off. At least, that's what a study in Consumer Reports and a recent report on the PBS NewsHour Weekend found, the latter of which I assume is what your friend's friend may have seen.

The PBS story spotlighted the case of Carol Thompson of Edina, Minn. -- who just happens to be the mother of PBS reporter Megan Thompson. In 2009, Carol was diagnosed with breast cancer and initially had to pay $400 per month out of pocket to buy the brand-name version of the drug letrozole.

But when generic versions entered production in 2011, she found she could buy it at Costco for $10. Wondering if she could find an even better price, she began calling other pharmacies. That's when she got the shock of her life. Prices for the same 30-day supply of generic letrozole ranged from $11.04 all the way up to $455 -- more than 40 times higher.

She shouldn't have been surprised, Lisa Gill -- who covers prescription drug coverage for Consumer Reports -- said in the PBS piece. In the magazine's own study of five newer generics, prices ran the same wide gamut. Generic Plavix, a blood thinner, went from $15 at Costco to $180 at CVS. Generic Lipitor ranged from $17 at Costco to $150 at CVS.

"We have never found this kind of variation in a drug price study before," Gill said.

And here's another stunner: When confronted with the far lower prices, Target -- which quoted Thompson the $455 letrozole price -- told her it would match the lowest price if provided proof. But if you don't know to shop around, you won't know to ask, Thompson and Gill agreed.

"It's worse than buying a car," Gill said. "At least when you're buying a car there's a sticker on the window where there's a price you're going to try to work down from. In this case you don't have anything."

Surprisingly, Gill says, independent pharmacies often offer some of the lowest prices. In its defense, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores says prices can depend on insurance plans and pricing changes from manufacturers. CVS said the magazine's sample was too small to determine best overall value.

Still, it seems best to at least make a few calls and perhaps visit a website like www.goodrx.com, which could help link you to price discounts, coupons and clubs. To watch the PBS story in its entirety, go to www.pbs.org/newshour and search the site for "generic drugs." It should be the first noncommercial choice that pops up.

Brain burps

In a recent column on Abraham Lincoln, I mentioned in passing the musical "Show Boat." As arts lover Harrison Church, of Lebanon, pointed out, I should have said it was based on a novel by Edna Ferber, not British actress Edna Best, whom I happened to be researching at the same time.

Also, my apologies for an incorrect phone number that ran at the end of this column this week. If you've tried phoning me unsuccessfully recently, I'd appreciate a call back at 239-2465.

Today's trivia

Even though you'd never be able to dig one up there, what is now the official gemstone of Florida, fittingly enough?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: When the car began emerging as a new means of transportation, drivers quickly faced a dilemma. Just as horses needed hay and oats, cars needed gas, but where could it be found? At first, driving had to be carefully planned because gas had to be obtained at "bulk depots" outside cities, according to Martin Melosi in an article for the University of Michigan Dearborn. But then oil companies dreamed up another way to add to their profits: the filling station. And where was the first? Melosi says that in 1905, the Automobile Gasoline Co. used a gravity-fed tank and opened the first "gas station" at 412 S. Theresa Ave. -- in St. Louis, Mo. Standard Oil of California opened its first in Seattle in 1907.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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