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Prescription drugs nearly 450 percent pricier at CVS than at Costco: report

The dispensary at UMMA Community Clinic in South Los Angeles fills UMMA patients' prescriptions on-site.
The dispensary at UMMA Community Clinic in South Los Angeles fills UMMA patients' prescriptions on-site.
Christopher Okula/KPCC

Folks looking to save on prescription drugs may want to make a beeline to the nearest Costco – and avoid CVS, Rite Aid and Target while they're at it.

A new analysis from Consumer Reports compared how much generic drugs would cost out-of-pocket – meaning if they weren't covered by insurance – at more than 200 different pharmacies.

Looking at medications that treated diabetes, depression, high cholesterol, blood clots and asthma, analysts totaled how much a month's supply of each of those five drugs would cost at one pharmacy and then used that as an indicator of how expensive that pharmacy was.

They wrote that they found a "whopping difference of $749, or 447 percent, between the highest- and lowest-priced stores."

Costco was the least expensive and CVS was the most expensive, generally speaking. Independent pharmacies were a wild card: Some of them were cheaper than Costco and others were more expensive than CVS. Grocery store pharmacy prices also varied widely.

Here are the total costs of the five generic drugs for some of the sites Consumer Reports tested (not including membership discounts):

Independent pharmacies ranged between $131 and $1,073; grocery store prices ranged between $176 and $1,018.

The differences highlighted by Consumer Reports are a bit more apparent at the individual drug level. For example, the generic version of Lexapro, an antidepressant, costs $7 at Costco and $126 at CVS. The generic version of Actos, a diabetes drug, costs $101 at Costco and almost triple that at CVS, $295.

Managing medication costs

That can and does add up. Analysts said Americans spent an average of $758 out-of-pocket on medication in 2012. Almost 1 in 8 of their respondents had spent more than $1,200 that year.

Nina Vaccaro, the executive director of the Southside Coalition of Community Health Clinics, said programs like Healthy Way LA help to cover prescription drug costs for a lot of low-income patients in South L.A. who otherwise might not be insured.

"But if their income is too high, which is the case for some people, then they're not eligible for the low-income program," she said. "Then they pay out of pocket."

One option, in that case, is a patient assistance program (PAP). PAPs are run by pharmaceutical companies and provide eligible people with free medication.

"The income range for folks that are eligible is a little more generous [with PAPs], so you don't have to be right at the federal poverty line to get free medication," said Vaccaro. Some PAPs also don't require beneficiaries to be citizens. (You can search this database for PAPs that cover your medications.)

For those who do have to pay out of pocket, Vaccaro said going generic is a major part of keeping costs down. "You always want to ask for the generic equivalent," she said. "That's one thing that people aren't as proactive with – their doctors prescribe them the brand-name medication, and sometimes doctors just don't think about it."

Brand names are generally far more expensive than their generic equivalents, even though Vaccaro says "we all know that a generic equivalent is just as good as the brand-name drug." Health providers in most South L.A. clinics, she noted, tend to be "far more cognizant" of that and default to prescribing generics.

On top of that, Consumer Reports recommends requesting the lowest possible price when calling a pharmacy to price a drug. Also among its tips:

Researchers noted that "you don't need to be a member" to use Costco's pharmacy.