SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – Bay Area pharmacy customers could avoid overpaying for prescription drugs by simply finding another location of the same pharmacy chain, according to a CBS 5 ConsumerWatch investigation.

ConsumerWatch price-checked prescriptions at 85 stores from six pharmacy chains throughout the Bay Area. They found many people are overpaying for prescriptions, not because of the pharmacy chain they use, but because of the store “location” they choose. For instance, the cash price for Viagra at most Bay Area Walgreens is $695, but it is $75 cheaper at six other Walgreens stores – three in the North Bay and three others in the South Bay.

Robert Krughoff, President the non-profit consumer magazine “Bay Area Checkbook”, attributes the price variations to competition. “Even within a big chain, the particular stores that are near low price competitors may bring prices down” said Krughoff.

ConsumerWatch found that was true of some Safeway pharmacies where prescription prices varied greatly within a few blocks. They found a $25 price difference for blood pressure medicine Norvasc between two Safeway pharmacies just a little over a mile apart. The more expensive store also charged $18 dollars more for the blood pressure medication Lipitor and $58 dollars more for the same 30 count, 50 milligram bottle of Viagra.

A cross reference of the stores’ competition found the cheaper Safeway was surrounded by five pharmacy competitors – the closest was just feet away. The more expensive Safeway pharmacy had only two competitors within a half mile.

“We’ve found that sometimes stores in low income neighborhoods have a monopoly and people don’t have much choice. Therefore the price will actually be higher (at stores in low income neighborhoods) than at stores where the customer can go to any of five different places” explains Krughoff.

San Francisco contractor Art Rex leaned that the hard way. “I’d been laid off from the job that I had so my health insurance went away” said Rex. That’s when he first realized the cash price for his prescription was different depending on which Walgreens pharmacy he had it filled at. “The pharmacist didn’t give me any kind of explanation.”

In a statement to ConsumerWatch, Walgreens explained “Drug prices for the less than 3 percent of patients who pay cash for all their prescriptions are based on the drug manufacturer’s price, other operational factors and local competition.”

Safeway told ConsumerWatch “There are some price variations between some locations, but the vast majority of our customers do not pay the prices that your report notes. More than 95% of our pharmacy business is covered by third-party prescription insurance or a prescription discount plan.”

In response to the ConsumerWatch report, Safeway says it will now price match lower cost prescriptions from any Safeway store or competitor. Walgreens suggest cash-paying consumers join their $20 Prescription Savings Club.

Unlike Safeway and Walgreens, CVS/Longs, Rite Aid, Wal-Mart and Costco all have consistent pricing throughout the state. However, prices may vary between cities due to tax differences. That is just one more reason Rex gives for price checking prescriptions. “I assumed that prices were somehow controlled as far as pharmaceuticals, this instance opened my eyes to something totally different.”

Pharmacists warn however, to avoid potentially harmful drug interactions, it is important to fill all of your prescriptions at one pharmacy. And as ConsumerWatch found, your best bet may be to choose a pharmacy with a lot of local competition.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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