Drug Price Comparisons: Best Pharmacies For Your Wallet

By Esme Murphy, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — If you think you are paying more for prescription drugs, you are right. In 1980, the average non-generic prescription cost $10. This year the average cash price is $180.

However, what WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy found is that the price for a prescription varies dramatically depending on which pharmacy chain you shop at.

And WCCO found a little-known regulation that allows everyone to take advantage of a store that consistently has the lowest prices.

Even with insurance, the federal government estimates that Americans now spend $238 billion on prescription drugs. That’s more than double a decade ago. But WCCO found how much you spend depends on where you shop.

For example, the full cash price of a 30-day supply of Divalproex DR, a generic anti-seizure medication, ranged from $94 at Walgreens to $14.27 at Costco.

As for the other pharmacies, when it comes to Divalproex DR, CVS was the second highest price at $92.59. Target was next at $90. Wal-Mart charged $56.84 and Sam’s Club was next at $47.46.

At an AARP roundtable, 85-year-old Scotty Scattarelli, a diabetic, shares how she saved more than $100 a month.

“I ended up going to Costco. That was the cheapest place at the time,” she said.

But Scattarelli is not a Costco member. She has discovered a little-known state law that can save you big bucks on prescription drugs.

It costs $50 a year to join Costco to shop there, but under state law,anyone can shop at Costco’s pharmacy, even if you are not a member.

The law applies to all wholesale clubs, including Sam’s Club, but it’s Costco that WCCO found consistently delivers the best pharmacy deals.

Of the 11 generic and non-generic drugs WCCO checked, Costco had the lowest price on six medications and the second lowest on four. Costco did not stock one of the medications.

Walgreens offers two set of prices on its medications. One set is among the highest prices WCCO found and the other set is among the lowest.

How can that be? The low prices are for members of Walgreens’ prescription savings club which costs $20 a year.

Marion Zampf, a 35-year-old mother of two, suffers from Lupus and has to take up to four medications a day. She said no one at Walgreens ever told her about the club.

During her last pregnancy, she was put on Warfarin, a generic blood thinner. The price at Walgreens for a month’s supply for non-club members is $29. For club members, it was $10, which is a $19 difference.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” said Zampf.

Remember the Walgreens price for the anti-seizure medication Divalproex DR? The non-club price is $94 while the club price is $64.49, which is more than a $29 difference.

For Viagra, the non-club price for 30 pills is $676 while the club price is $594. That’s a $77 difference.

Zampf left Walgreens and now gets her prescriptions by mail order. That’s not a guarantee, however, according to Professor Stephen Schondelmeyer, a nationally-known expert on drug pricing at the University of Minnesota.

“Don’t just assume that mail order pharmacies are cheaper. We found cases where they’re not; where it cost more than the retail pharmacy,” he said.

Prescription prices vary so greatly that consumers might be tempted to shop different pharmacies for their different medication. And while they will almost certainly save money that way, it could also prove dangerous.

“If you start dividing your prescriptions among three or four or five pharmacies, then the pharmacists won’t know all the medications you are on and can’t help avoid safety problems and drug interactions,” said Schondelmeyer.

So, what’s a consumer to do?

Shondelmeyer said asking for a lower price from your pharmacist usually works.

“If a given community pharmacist knows you have a lower price from somewhere else, they usually will match that or meet that. They can’t always do that but usually they will,” he said.

WCCO reached out to all the companies mentioned in this report. You can view their responses in the links below. And if you would like to see a spreadsheet of the research into drug costs, click on the link below.

Drug Price Comparisons (PDF)
Walgreens Statement On Drug Price Comparisons (PDF)
CVS Statement On Drug Price Comparisons (PDF)
Target Statement On Drug Price Comparisons (PDF)

More from Esme Murphy
  • ohoh

    ah duh, ask if they have a membership deal, ah duh ask the pharmacist to check the compatabilty of the meds you are taking. I just came back from over seas and they think we are “nambie pambie land” we whine about everything and look for someone else to blame. Come on “ask”.

    • T

      You are the one who sounds like an idiot go back overseas

  • Medical Advisor

    I sympathize with small family pharmacies, just like other small businesses that can not buy from suppliers as cheaply as large companies – who usually DO price low until they have driven competition out of the market and then upprice.

    having said that – “ohoh” above while cynical is in part right. Foreign countries don’t restrict medications as heavily as the US an place responsibility on the buyer. You can go to pharmicist or “chemist” shop and buy most medications (non-narcotic) without a prescription at all, just ask for it. the presumption is that a medical practitioner told you what to take or you already know from a previous experience. they also allow YOU to order drugs we (FDA) withhold from market to “protect” the public on the assumption YOU accept the risk of trying something new for a cure. Interestingly this all results in less drug abuse according to reports.

  • Kim Michels

    I’m so glad you aired this story. Unfortunately inconsistent prices for medications are nothing new and it’s no secret in the world of pharmacy. There is an important part to this story that was not included…
    Prairiestone Pharmacy, located in the Byerly’s and Lunds stores beats ALL of the local pharmacies price wise on brand name medications. I know this first hand from personal experience. Medications prices can change from refill to refill, and it’s important for people to know, especially for people who take brand name drugs that don’t have a generic available.

  • Beth

    Remember too, not all medications are the same from place to place. My thyroid meds aren’t as effective if I buy at Walgreen’s…..Target has the ones that suit me better. They use different manufacturers, and at least with this type of prescription it makes all the difference in the world!

  • sb

    Personally, I use walgreens for convenience. I love that they are open 24 hours and there are stores all around the country. On a side note – when my cat was sick they even allowed me to sign him up for the $4 generic rescription plan and filled the vei’s prescription for stool softener and antibiotics for him. The price was much cheaper then filling them at the vet. (Yes, in some cases pets take the same medications humans do). Anyway another cost saving alternative for those needing pet meds.

  • Audrey Hamilton

    Walgreens is the best. Their pharmacists are very professional, they give me generics whenever possible and they always offer help and further information. It is also very convenient to use their phone-in refill service. I save money and never have a problem.

    • Sue

      Walgreens has changed drastically then, because it was Walgreens that gouged me years ago, and it was FROM Walgreens that I switched to Costco. Generics are a given if you have insurance. ONLY if your physician specifies nongeneric will they give/charge you for name-brand meds. Walmart, where I get the meds that are covered by my insurance, automatically fills my ongoing prescriptions for me and notifies me when they are ready. I no longer have to go to the trouble of calling them in.

  • Tim W

    I’ve always had good luck with Walgreens, even at multiple locations. I am quite a few medications, and they did suggest their prescription savings plan to me, which in some cases gives me better prices than my employer–provided insurance plan. Generally, if there’s a problem getting my prescription filled, it’s because my insurance has changed their rules on what drugs they cover yet again, and the pharmacy has to work with my doctor to find an alternative that is covered.

  • Pam

    This is really some great information. But how come in the promos you showed “Cub”, but didn’t include them in your investigation?

  • sorry

    Me and my 7 kids are on section 8. I didn’t know perscription drugs cost money?

  • Brenda B.

    From CVS statement:
    “More than 95% of our pharmacy business is covered by third party prescription insurance in which
    customers pay a co-pay, not the full price, for their prescriptions.”
    So I guess it makes it ok when you bill the insurance company and the customer is not paying full price. Wonder why my insurance rates go up 20% every year…

  • Sue

    Sam’s Club told me two weeks ago that they will MATCH Costco’s prices for drugs. At one time CVS would do the same thing, but not sure that is the case any longer. I learned through a program ‘CCO did a few years ago about the disparity when filling prescriptions. That is when I became a die-hard Costco fan. I presently take a medication for which the generic — at WalMart is $90+ for a 30 day supply. However, I am able to get a 90-day supply of the same medication at Costco for $31. People say if they have insurance it doesn’t matter where they shop. I had prescription for warfarin #30 and my local pharmacy charged $20+ for it. No problem, as my co-pay of $10 took care of it? When I called Costco, I learned THEIR charge was around $6 at the time … and I would therefore have saved $4 without having to even use my insurance. I swear by Costco. And if Sam’s Club is true to their word, that they match Costco, then I would swear by Sam’s Club as well. My two cent’s worth …

  • Beth

    I wonder if the issue is more complex than this report indicates. How does one’ s health insurance figure into this? Do different insurance plans/companies have different negotiated prices with pharmacies? If you have a high deductible health plan and HSA, might that also be a variable? Like Rose’s comment above, perhaps the order would also relate to which, if any, health insurance plan might be involved in the transaction. I also thought that pricing may vary between, say Costco Eden Prairie and Costco elsewhere in the state or metro because of negotiated agreements between health plans and specific pharmacies. If anyone can shed light on these variables, I’d sure like to learn.

  • m.j.

    I was very disappointed by this story, as the investigation did not provide all of the facts. First of all, people on state- or federally-funded prescription plans are not eligible for the Walgreen’s Prescription Savings Club. This rules out nearly anyone over 65 (on Medicare) or those who have Minnesota Medical Assistance. (The story falsely stated that anyone could sign up for this program.) Secondly, prices that were shown during the story were cash prices only. People who have insurance cannot use both the insurance and the Walgreen’s Prescription Savings Club. Typically, an insurance copay will be lower for a high-priced medication, but if the Savings Club is the better deal for the patient, we will encourage enrollment. It is great for people to be aware that there are ways to save money on prescription drugs, but the story should have been more well-researched. I spent 8 hours today trying to explain how prescription insurance, $4 plans, and prescription savings clubs (at stores like Walgreen’s and CVS) work together.

    As a side note, it was mentioned in the story that a woman was placed on warfarin during her most recent pregnancy. Warfarin is a drug that is contraindicated in pregnancy and should NEVER be used. I find this fact to be very hard to believe. Not only would a physician not prescribe that medication, a pharmacist would never fill it.

  • Maureen J

    I would love to see the answer to this as well. I get the same line…

  • RxRightsAdvocate

    It’s good to see the issue of drug pricing getting some attention. Prescription drug affordability is a major public health issue. Shopping at Costco instead of Walgreen’s is one answer to the problem but it’s really not enough of a savings. On average, Americans pay twice as much for prescription medicine as people in other industrialized countries.

    The big issue not addressed in this story is the role that pharmaceutical companies play. They resort to underhanded tactics like price fixing and censorship to maintain their high profit margins.

    Over a million Americans now import their prescription drugs from legitimate, licensed online and mail-order pharmacies. Find out more at http://www.rxrights.org

  • Kellye Rose

    Thank you for this story, as it made me pull out my medication receipts and LOOK at what Walgreens was charging me. Not only had they switched me from Name Brand to Generic, they kept charging me Name Brand prices for the Generic!! ~$450 for 180 pills, which Costco will sell at Generic price of roughly ~45 for 180 pills!!! Walgreens manager to the generic I had was “both a name brand and a generic” which is why they charged Name brand prices!! How does that make sense???

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  • Valeri R Taylor

    Where is the link to compare drug cost. I need to have a Lyrica medicaiton filled. Where to go is the question

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