The Times, Trenton

Web Site A Prescription For Medication Savings

The Times of Trenton — Sunday, January 29, 2006

By TRACEY L. REGAN
Staff Writer

In New Jersey, finding the best deal on a prescription drug can be an ordeal, according to bargain-hunters, who say pharmacists are not always eager to disclose prices over the telephone.

But for those watching costs – including the more than 1 million New Jerseyans with no health insurance coverage at all - the hunt is worth it, as prices can vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy.

A Trenton-based watchdog group, which recently surveyed a chain store's prices within a 50-mile radius of the capital, found significant variations in price.

A 30-pill prescription for the cholesterol drug Lipitor, for example, sold for $99.59 at CVS and $79.37 at Wal-Mart, according to the nonprofit New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute. The heartburn medicine Prevacid sold for $173.99 at Rite-Aid, but could be purchased for $136.46 at Wal-Mart, the group found.

Online prices were, predictably, the lowest in many cases.

David Knowlton, the group's executive director, said his group will urge the state to ease the hunt for bargains by requiring pharmacies to post prices for prescription drugs on the Web, in a format that makes it easy for shoppers to compare.

New York has such a site, allowing shoppers to see comparable prices for prescription drugs within their ZIP code, Knowlton noted.

"We think consumers have a right to know what things cost, and it should be easy to get this data," Knowlton said. "It shocks me that you can go into a supermarket and get a clearly marked price – a unit price – on laundry detergent, but you can't always get this for life-saving medication.

"We want consumers to know there is a wide variation in cost and they may not be getting the best buy. In some cases they could walk across the street and get a better deal," he added.

Knowlton said the state or a group like his could create and operate the platforms to display prices. His group is not alone in seeking more price transparency for costly prescription drugs. Advocacy groups such as Citizen Action and AARP say they also believe posting such information would enliven competition and lower prices.

"There is wide price variation among pharmacies," said Douglas Johnson, manager of advocacy for AARP, who said posting prices is "a particularly important tool for the hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans who lack health insurance."

Under state law, pharmacies must disclose the price of a medicine when someone asks but are not required to display it.

Pharmacists defend their current practices, saying prices for drugs vary just as those for other products do. Many disclose prices whenever asked.

"It's not really that stores are overcharging but that others choose to discount to attract business," said Peter Halecky, a pharmacy owner in Bayonne and vice president of the New Jersey Pharmacists Association. And, he said, "Some pharmacies offer more services," such as delivery.

"Our goal is to be competitive," said Helene Bisson, a spokeswoman for Eckerd stores. "We want the overall market basket to be at least average.

"If it's a law, we would abide, for sure," she said of state requirements to post prices.

Halecky said bargain-hunting presents safety concerns as well. Filling prescriptions at several different pharmacies could lead to potentially dangerous drug interactions that a single pharmacist, with all the patient's information in front of him, might foresee, he said.

Some pharmacists question whether the considerable effort required to gather and display price information would be worth it.

"I don't know if it would do much good because people already know they can compare. We get a lot of calls from people who want to compare," said Carlo Benedetti, the former owner of Olden Pharmacy in Trenton, who now helps his son, Carlo Jr., run the business. "A lot of the people who are asking are elderly, and I don't know if they have access to the Web."

`'I wouldn't object though," Benedetti added.

But some shoppers say it is not so easy to get prices, particularly over the phone.

"Some don't want to give prices over the phone, and some said they wouldn't tell you unless you ordered," said Leonard Domanski, a retired business owner in Hamilton. "I don't want to argue."

Domanski has no coverage for the seven medications, including blood thinners, he takes daily. Obtaining them at affordable prices has involved considerable effort, he said.

He said prices for drugs can vary dramatically among pharmacies, noting that in one case, there was a $90 difference in the price of one of his wife's medications.

According to the most recent figures, there are 1.3 million people in New Jersey without health insurance, said Marilyn Riley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

On top of that, a third of New Jerseyans 65 and older did not have drug coverage as of last year, according to a 2001 survey by the Center for State health Policy at Rutgers University. That number is expected to change, however, as elderly people sign up for coverage under a new Medicare prescription drug plan.

Uwe Reinhardt, a health economist at Princeton University, called mandatory price posting "economically imperative in the age of consumer-driven health care, as well as morally compelling."

He added, "Frankly, I cannot think of one legitimate argument against the idea."

It has yet to find a sponsor in the Legislature, however. Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge, chairman of the Senate health committee, said he would consider it.

"I think it has merit. It deserves a serious look," he said, adding, "We could learn from the New York model."

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