Shopping for Drugs: 2004

Policy Reports | Health

No. 270
Monday, October 11, 2004
by Devon Herrick, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

Seniors, the uninsured and others who pay for prescriptions out of pocket are looking for ways to cope with rising drug costs. While many seniors can lower their drug bills by using the new Medicare discount drug cards and the new subsidies for low income retirees, every patient interested in saving money on drug therapy should consider a common-sense solution: smart shopping.

Patients can cut costs substantially by becoming aggressive consumers. In fact, seniors can reduce the cost of some common drug therapies by more than 90 percent if they use the same buying techniques they routinely use when shopping for other goods and services. But they should be forewarned. Patients buying drugs from multiple sources forgo the safeguard of using a single licensed pharmacist who checks for drug interactions. To ensure this does not occur, patients should make all pharmacies they use aware of all drugs they are taking.

Consumers have never had more opportunities to obtain information about drugs. A patient with a prescription can find a range of prices by clicking on a few Internet pharmacy Web sites. The Internet makes it easy to look up information on government and private programs to assist elderly, low-income and disabled patients. Additionally, Web-based services help patients find comparable medications that are cheaper than their current prescriptions. But Internet shopping means buyer beware. Consumers should verify the identity and location of sellers, the sources of their products and the security of their financial and health information.

Drug Substitution. When physicians prescribe drugs, patients should ask if there are cheaper alternatives. Often there are.

Generic Medications. For most patients, generic medications work as well as brand-name drugs and cost 20 percent to 80 percent less. The average cost for a generic prescription was $14.70 in 2002, compared to $77.02 for branded medications.

Price Comparisons. Many people assume that drug prices are uniform and do not bother to comparison shop. In fact, drug prices vary considerably. One survey found that prudent shopping among local pharmacies saved consumers almost 10 percent on brand-name drugs and a whopping 81 percent on generics, on the average.

Over-the-Counter Drugs. As an alternative to prescription drugs, patients may find that an over-the-counter (OTC) drug does just as well. Americans buy more than five billion OTC drug products each year — 60 percent of all drugs used. Today, consumers have access to a market with more than 100,000 different OTC drug products. More than 600 of them were previously available only by prescription.

Bulk Buying. All supermarket patrons know that choosing larger packages usually lowers the unit cost. The same is true of drugs. Pills purchased 90 or 100 at a time usually sell for less per dose than quantities bought 30 at a time. This is especially true for generic drugs ordered by mail.

Pill Splitting . Patients can purchase many medications in doses double the prescribed amount and split them in half. Often, pharmacists will split the pills for them. Savings of 30 percent to 50 percent are not uncommon, because many medications are sold for about the same price regardless of the dosage.

Mail-Order Pharmacies. Although drugstore chains still sell the most drugs, mail order pharmacies are gaining ground and now account for about 17 percent of the retail drug market. Mail-order and Internet pharmacies offer the best deals on prescription drugs for patients with chronic conditions that require continuing medication. Some patients even buy drugs from other countries over the Internet, although the practice is illegal and the drugs may not be safe.

Pharmaceutical Company Assistance Programs. Many drug companies have discount card programs to assist disabled, low-income and/or elderly patients with the cost of drugs. For example, Together RX, a joint program run by several drug companies, offers savings of up to 40 percent on more than 150 different drugs. Medicare beneficiaries earning up to $38,000 per couple qualify.

State Drug Assistance Programs. Almost three-quarters of the states have created some type of drug assistance program for the elderly, low-income patients, and/or people with disabilities. More than half of the states help seniors pay for medicine with state funds, and nine offer drug discount programs that allow seniors to purchase drugs at below retail prices.

Medicare Discount Drug Cards. Seniors now have an opportunity to combine smart shopping techniques with the new Medicare drug discount card, using the price information for thousands of pharmacies available at In addition, the new prescription drug benefit offers financial help to low-income seniors.

Potential Savings. How much can patients expect to save by using these techniques? We reviewed prices on Web-based pharmacies during the third quarter of 2004 and found that they varied widely. Take the cardiovascular drug Tenormin, for example:

  • Our survey found that the price of 100 (50mg) doses of Tenormin ranged from $138.40 at to $120.59 at
  • But patients could save at least 75 percent over the lowest cost brand-name drug by switching to the generic alternative Atenolol.
  • One hundred doses of the generic drug ranged from $26.63 at to $8.29 at
  • Finally, consumers could lower the cost yet another 40 percent (from $8.29 to $4.75) by buying larger pills (100mg) and splitting them in half.
  • Smart buying of this drug lowered the potential overall cost by 97 percent — from a high of $138.40 to a low of $4.75.
  • For another example of potential savings, consider the heartburn drug Nexium:
  • If purchased in small quantities from RxUSA’s Web site, Nexium (20mg) costs about $419.83 per 100 tablets; however, a shopper opting for would pay $385.52 for 100 tablets, an 8 percent savings.
  • Buying the generic equivalent of a therapeutic substitute, such as 20mg Omeprazole, would save about 41 percent.
  • Furthermore, because Prilosec, a branded form of the generic drug Omeprazole, is now available over-the-counter, a savvy consumer opting to pay $62.62 for a 100-day supply from would save 85 percent off the most expensive option.

Seniors can use these shopping techniques to achieve even greater savings from their prescription drug discount cards.

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