One of the biggest advantages of shopping for prescription drugs online is price transparency, which empowers the consumer to easily find the best price among available options.
As healthcare consumers well know, it is very difficult to comparison shop among brick-and-mortar pharmacies, because pharmacies typically don’t advertise their prices for prescription drugs (with the exception of the Wal-Mart generic drug program and similar programs, which generally include a list of covered drugs on the retailer’s Web site.)
Because it’s difficult to compare prices, particularly for expensive, brand-name drugs, most consumers buy at their corner drugstore, assuming the price isn’t much different from the next corner — or the other side of town. This simply isn’t the case. What’s worse, the disparities in pricing disproportionately affect poorer people.
According to a new study appearing in the Health Services Research journal:
Four of the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States can cost 15 percent more on average in the poorest neighborhoods of Florida, according to a study comparing retail pharmacy prices around the state. Part of the explanation is the high proportion of independent pharmacies in poor ZIP codes that charge the highest prices for Nexium, Advair Diskus, Plavix and azithromycin…
In contrast, the study shows that chain pharmacies are less expensive and less likely to vary their prices based on ZIP code. However, they are also less common in poorer areas. The authors noted that some independent pharmacies in poor neighborhoods did charge prices similar to chain pharmacies, but that issues such as health literacy, finances and transportation could limit consumers from shopping around…
Even small price increases have negative consequences, and two earlier studies found that the cost of prescription drugs discourages uninsured and poor people from filling their prescriptions. As a result of not controlling their health, they spend more time in emergency rooms.
The researcher behind the study concludes:
“Insuring the uninsured is a priority. However, uninsured people who pay retail prices for their medications and struggle with health care costs should not face higher prices because of where they live. Even though these variations are based on data from only one state, they deserve further investigation.”128