Prescription Drug Comparison Shopping May Come To New Jersey

Newsday — May 24, 2006

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — Marilyn Askin compares prices when she shops at New Jersey's many malls. And the 72-year-old West Orange resident can do the same when she spins through a supermarket. But comparison shopping has always been difficult when it comes to something important to Askin and millions of other New Jerseyans.

"There's no way you can compare prescription drug prices," Askin said.

That may soon change.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine hopes to soon sign into law a bill that would create a state Web site listing pharmacy-by-pharmacy retail prices for the 150 most frequently prescribed drugs.

The Web site would be designed to easily allow consumers to find the cheapest prescription drugs and decrease prices through enhanced competition.

New Jersey would follow New York, Maryland, Illinois and Florida in creating such Web sites.

"It's not just for seniors," Corzine recently said about the Web site. "It's for everyone, and price competition will actually lead to major savings for the public."

The bill has been advanced by legislative committees in the Assembly and Senate. It hasn't received final votes, but appears to have enough support to pass. Corzine said signing the bill ranks as among his major short-term priorities.

It's estimated the state would have to spend $1 million to create the Web site, but supporters contend it would be worth the cost.

"We hope the popularity of the registry will encourage retail pharmacies to offer deep discounts and make it easier for the uninsured to get the drugs they need," said Mike Olender of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Under the bill, pharmacies would have to report retail prices to the state health department weekly to update the registry. Consumers would log into the Web site to search drug prices by ZIP code. For people who don't have Internet access, the registry would be made available in writing to consumers who call a toll free telephone number.

"As the Internet becomes an integral part of our lives, it's natural to take this step," said Assemblyman Linda Greenstein, a Plainsboro Democrat and sponsor of the Assembly bill.

Rising prescription drug prices have long been a concern. From October 2004 to September 2005, inflation increased 3.3 percent, but drug prices increased six percent during the same period.

In a recent study, the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute found an average price difference of $47 in drug prices at chain drug stores in the Mercer County area, said Sarah McLallen, an institute analyst.

"Given that patients can literally walk across the street and get a better deal, this sort of information can be very important to the public and the nearly 1.4 million uninsured New Jerseyans, not to mention the many who don't have prescription drug benefits in their plan," she said.

A check of New York's Web site – – showed wide pricing ranges for common drugs.

For instance, Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering medication, cost $45 to $188 for 30 pills, while the allergy drug Zyrtec cost $55 to $419 for 30 doses. New York officials say the site has helped consumers save, on average, $17 per prescription.

"When it comes to making decisions about health care, we have found that knowledge really is power," said Sen. Joseph Vitale, a Middlesex County Democrat and bill sponsor. "For those individuals regularly taking one or more prescriptions, the registry will be truly empowering, saving them hundreds of dollars each year for only a few minutes work."

Consumer advocate group New Jersey Citizen Action said 20 percent of uninsured New Jerseyans require at least one prescription drug, with 65,000 uninsured residents requiring four prescription drugs.

John Holub, spokesman for the New Jersey Council of Chain Drug Stores, said the group supports the bill's intent, but said the legislation would make New Jersey the only state that requires pharmacies to report prices – a possible burden for stores. He said elsewhere state officials gather the information.

But Sen. Barbara Buono, another bill sponsor, said the bill would prove "a real boon to New Jerseys seniors."

"For seniors who have a tough time getting around, it might otherwise be difficult for them to gather this information and get the best price," said Buono, D-Middlesex.

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