Press of Atlantic City

State To Compare Drug Prices Online

Press of Atlantic City — Tuesday, August 22, 2006

By FRAIDY REISS
For The Press

TRENTON — Soon you will be able to find the best price for your prescription drugs by logging on to a state-run Web site.

New Jersey will establish a Web site that lists retail prices pharmacy-by-pharmacy for the 150 most frequently prescribed medications, under the terms of a bill Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed into law Monday.

The English and Spanish Web site, which should be ready by next fall, will allow consumers to search for prices by ZIP code. A toll-free hot line will provide the same information.

"This program will let consumers comparison shop, increase price competition between pharmacies and help lower prescription costs," Corzine said.

The registry will help the 1.4 million New Jersey residents who have no health insurance – of whom 260,000 need at least one prescription drug and 65,000 need four or more medications, said Mike Olender, of the consumer advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action.

And the registry will help people whose health insurance does not cover prescription drugs, as well as seniors trapped in Medicare Part D's "donut hole" coverage gap, Olender added.

"We hope (the registry) will have a downward effect on the price of prescription drugs," Olender said, "but our primary concern is helping people who don't have insurance or who have insurance literally with holes in it."

For mom-and-pop pharmacies, though, the prospect of seeing their drug prices compared to chain-store prices is intimidating.

"That might cause a problem for small, independent pharmacies trying to compete with bigger stores," said Roni Briese, manager of Reses Pharmacy in Galloway Township.

John Holub, executive director of New Jersey Council of Chain Drug Stores, said small pharmacies need not worry about the price comparisons. The only consumers who will shop around for prescription drugs are those who plan to pay out of pocket, and those customers account for only 1 percent to 2 percent of pharmacy business, Holub said.

Besides, said Sarah McLallen, of New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, the registry will show that in many cases chain pharmacies are charging far more than local pharmacies.

The institute recently studied drug prices in Mercer County and found drug prices varied by an average of $47 within the county, highlighting the need for a price registry, McLallen said.

"In some cases you could literally walk across the street and get a better deal," McLallen said.

There is no reason for these price variations, said Assemblywoman Linda R. Greenstein, one of the sponsors of the bill to create the registry.

"Right now the pharmacies have gotten away with it because no one was keeping an eye on it," said Greenstein, D-Mercer, Middlesex.

New York, Maryland, Illinois and Florida also have established Web sites comparing prescription drug prices. In New York, consumers who shop around save an average of $17 per prescription, Greenstein said.

The Office of Legislative Services does not yet know exactly how much the new Web site will cost to set up and run, but one estimate put the amount at $322,000 for the registry's first year and $72,000 per year after that.

New Jersey is home to approximately 2,200 pharmacies, according to the state Division of Consumer Affairs. The registry, which will be updated weekly, will not require any extra work from these pharmacies.

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