2004-04-09 / Community

Shopping Around Could $ave The Uninsured

By Brian Magoolaghan


*The drugs included in this comparison were chosen from a list of commonly prescribed medications. All pricing information was obtained from the pharmacy’s Retail Price List during the month of March, 2004. Canadian prices are in U.S. dollars but do not include the cost of shipping and handling, and deliveries from Canada usually take 5-8 business days.*The drugs included in this comparison were chosen from a list of commonly prescribed medications. All pricing information was obtained from the pharmacy’s Retail Price List during the month of March, 2004. Canadian prices are in U.S. dollars but do not include the cost of shipping and handling, and deliveries from Canada usually take 5-8 business days.

If you are among the 8,000 Rock away residents who recently reported having no healthcare coverage, or if your insurance plan does not cover medications, you might want to shop around before filling your next prescription.

A recent comparison of local pharmacies revealed that their posted re tail prices for a number of commonly prescribed medications varied by an average of about $20, and there is a chance you could pay less than retail if you have no insurance.

A further comparison of local pharmacies and Canadian websites reaffirmed the conclusion that has recently made national headlines: using a modem and keyboard to fill prescriptions saves people without coverage money. The catch is the FDA says that’s illegal.

The Wave randomly selected seven commonly prescribed medications and then polled nine local pharmacies and two Canadian Internet sites to price the drugs using the quantity and strength in milligrams typically prescribed for the particular drug. The local prices were culled from each pharmacy’s Retail Price List.

What we found, with regard to local pharmacies, is that the average difference for each drug’s high and low retail price was $19.36.

Belle Harbor Chemists, located at 412 Beach 129 Street, came in with the highest retail prices for six of the seven drugs, but that does not necessarily translate into higher costs for customers without insurance.

"Our customers who do not have third-party insurance are priced ac cording to the AWP [average wholesale price], which is cheaper than the retail price," said Frank Stella, part owner and pharmacist at Belle Harbor Chemists. Stella provided AWP prices for each of the seven drugs included in our poll, which placed the pharmacy out of the "most expensive" category in every case. "We can beat or match anyone’s price in the area," he added. Belle Harbor Chemist’s strategy is common in the pharmacy business.

"Pharmacies will try to accommodate cash patients on high-cost medications," said Lawrence Mokhiber, the executive director for the New York State Board of Pharmacy. Mokhiber said that about 92 percent of prescriptions in the state are paid for by third-party coverage. Some 8,000 Rockaway residents reported that they have no healthcare coverage, according to a 2003 city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene survey. Figures indicating how many more residents have insurance but no prescription medication coverage were not available.

Mokhiber said some pharmacies offer discount prices depending on their overhead and their ability to buy medications in bulk. He added that while price is an important consideration, other services such as the quality of information given to the patient and senior discounts are important too.

Stella was quick to point out that Belle Harbor Chemists offers a delivery service and gives seniors a 10 percent discount on prescriptions.

The Wave’s comparison also showed three other indicators that could benefit Rockaway consumers: prices for each drug were different at each pharmacy, which suggests competition; prices were not necessarily highest at the corporate chain pharmacies; and each pharmacy produced their Retail Price Lists upon request as they are required to do by law.

Gina Pharmacy, located at 53-13 Beach Channel Drive had the lowest retail prices for four of the seven drugs we polled. But the retail prices listed on the two Canadian Internet sites were significantly cheaper than even the cheapest local price for each drug.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says buying medication from Canada is "generally" out of the question.

"Don’t purchase from foreign Websites at this time because generally it will be illegal to import the drugs bought from these sites, the risks are greater, and there is very little the U.S. government can do if you get ripped off," the FDA says on its website.

The FDA also warns that purchasing a medication from foreign website puts people at risk for serious drug interactions and other "serious health consequences." It also warns that filling a prescription without seeing a doctor is potentially harmful. The FDA has not prosecuted customers of Canadian sites, however.

Despite the warnings consumers are buying their medication from Canada. A recent report on 60-Minutes estimated that more than 1 million American are buying from our northern neighbors.

Drugs in Canada are cheaper than in the U.S. because the Canadian government regulates the maximum prices that can be charged and tries to maintain a climate where the pharmaceutical companies compete with one another.

Steve Blick, the pharmacist at Ocean Park Drugs, located at 17-27 Seagirt Boulevard says competing with Canada is impossible because of the un-level playing field. And he admits that his own mother gets her medication from Canada, because their prices beat his.

"There’s no reason why the major drug companies should be able to charge the Canadian government 1/3 of what they charge U.S. pharmacies," said Blick, who said the "rap" about the higher cost being related to research and development or safety is nonsense.

"You don’t hear about people in Canada dying from the [prescription] drugs their taking," he said.


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