A variety of drugs including insulin have dramatically increased in price.

Share on Pinterest
Your pharmacist may know if there are cheaper prescription drug options available. Getty Images

Have you ever experienced sticker shock when picking up a prescription at the pharmacy?

Well, here’s something even more shocking: That drugstore could be charging you hundreds more than a pharmacy down the street for that same medication, according to a new study.

In the report, published this month by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund, researchers called more than 250 pharmacies across 11 states to check the cash price of 12 common drugs.

They found that the price of these medications varied significantly, with large pharmacies charging between 8 percent and 840 percent more than small, independent pharmacies for eight of the surveyed drugs.

“People are not aware that they can get their medication for less at another pharmacy,” said Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Providence St. Joseph Health.

“There’s a lack of transparency with the cost of drugs — it’s not published anywhere in a way that’s digestible to the average human being,” she added.

Nearly one in four Americans who take prescription drugs say they struggle to afford the medication they need, according to the latest Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll.

Almost half of those people reported having “only fair or poor health.”

When people can’t afford their medication or don’t know that it might be less expensive somewhere else, the state of their health is at risk.

“Some patients choose not to pick up their prescription after hearing the cost,” said Alex Luli, PharmD, a pharmacist and health sciences assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“Others might skip doses or cut doses in half to make their medication last longer. If they have family members on the same medication, they may start sharing it, which could create complications and long-term health consequences.”

Not taking a medication exactly as prescribed can worsen a person’s chronic conditions and make it harder for doctors to provide quality care, said Compton-Phillips.

“What physicians know will have the best odds of working for a patient may not be what the patient ends up putting in their mouth. What’s really scary is that what a doctor sees on a chart could be very different from what a patient actually has in their bloodstream, [leaving them at risk for] harmful interactions,” she said.

The affordability of drugs can make a big difference in the lives of individual people. But the vast discrepancies in drug prices across the board have a ripple effect across the population, experts say.

“It erodes trust in the entire system. Patients are going to healthcare facilities to feel better and get better, and someone’s taking advantage of them in the end,” said Compton-Phillips.

Proactive patients can save $102-$5,400 a year on certain medications by shopping around, according to the U.S. PIRG study.

Here’s how to save money on prescription drugs:

Comparison shop

Don’t become a creature of habit when it comes to your drugstore.

Call around (or use online pharmacy price comparison tools, such as SingleCare, GoodRx or ScriptSave WellRx) to see which pharmacies near you offer the best prices on your medication.

Shop local

The report found that large chain pharmacies tended to charge more for many drugs than small, independent drugstores.

You might be able to get a lower price on your prescriptions at a mom-and-pop pharmacy in your neighborhood.

Check for coupons

Many drug manufacturers offer discount coupons on their website that you can use at the pharmacy to offset the price of your medicine.

Mail order your medicine

You may be able to save money on co-pays for prescription medication through a mail-order program run by your insurance company’s pharmacy benefit manager.

A 2014 study on the costs of Medicare Part D prescriptions found that patients paid 24 cents per unit of medication from mail-order pharmacies, compared with 31 cents at brick-and-mortar pharmacies.

You can also save on time and the cost of transportation by avoiding an in-person trip to the pharmacy.

Switch to a generic drug

Generic medicines typically cost 80 to 85 percent less than their brand-name counterparts, according to the Food & Drug Administration.

Ask your pharmacist if there’s a generic version of the medicine you’ve been prescribed.

“That’s one of our great roles as pharmacists — we can see if there’s another drug covered at a different tier in your insurance plan that will give you the same effect, and we’ll go between your insurer and doctor to find something that works,” said Luli.

Ask about the cash price

“Depending on the design of your insurance plan, it’s sometimes cheaper to use cash instead of your insurance when paying for prescription drugs,” said Luli.