27 Investigates: Prescription drug price survey

BOARDMAN, Ohio (WKBN) — Americans spent $329 billion on prescription drugs last yearThat’s more than $1,000 per person. And for thousands without insurance, making that money count can mean choosing between medication and other necessities. 27 Investigates the cost of filling a prescription.

Along 224 in Boardman, you’ll find a pharmacy on nearly every street corner. Big letters on the outside advertising what’s for sale and it’s big business. To narrow the scope of our survey, 27 Investigates contacted Debbie Hale. She manages the Humility of Mary Health Partners Prescription Drug Assistance Program.

“I picked the ones that were the most commonly prescribed by the physicians in the area,” Debbie Hale said.

27 Investigates price-checked a dozen brand-name drugs, many used for diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure. We called and faxed our request for information to nine locations during the week of June 16th. The list included national drug store chains, super centers, a grocery store and locally-owned pharmacies.

You’ll pay the most at Target and CVS for more than half of the dosages we asked about — 8 out of 14. It was a very different story for the least expensive option. The Medicine Shoppe offered 7 of the 14 cheapest prices.

The amount of money you can save also stood out in our research. We turned up a difference of $20 between prescriptions for Synthroid. But Lantus could set you back an extra $340 for the same box of pens.

WKBN requested interviews with Target, CVS and the Medicine Shoppe, with only the Medicine Shoppe agreeing to an on-camera interview. Pharmacist Rick Berry has owned the Boardman store for 13 years.

“We basically have across-the-board fair prices,” Berry said.

Berry independently operates the franchise and says pricing is all a numbers game.

“The utilities are really low, the rent is low and our hours are short, too. We’re open 9:30 to 5:30, so our payroll is cut,” Berry said.

And Berry chooses to pass that savings onto his customers.

“I think people have the mindset that local stores are more expensive and you have that name recognition with these other stores,” Berry said.

He says the cost of advertising, a high-traffic location and 24-hour service all impact the bottom line

“We can compete with them with no problem,” Berry said.

Despite the recent expansion of Ohio Medicaid, Berry still has customers who pay out-of-pocket for brand-name drugs because they’re uninsured.

“It’s probably 15 percent,” Berry said.

Nanette Isom knows the cost of not being covered. She struggled to make ends meet before getting help.

“Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars. Yeah. I wouldn’t be paying my utilities, I wouldn’t be buying food because I’d be trying to stay alive,” Isom said.

Berry’s advice for those like Isom stretching a dollar: Let the buyer beware.

“It’s a simple phone call. Don’t be misled by advertising and think that just because some store gives it away free, that they’re going to be cheap on all their medications,” Berry said.

“Even in our own program, if there’s a specific drug that isn’t covered through our program, we will definitely tell people to price-check,” Hale said.

27 Investigates also reached out to both Target and CVS.

Target emailed this response:

Target’s Pharmacy team is committed to providing our guests with outstanding service and competitive prices. Many factors can impact pharmacy charges including a guest’s insurance plan, price changes from manufacturers, if a provider has named the pharmacy a preferred location and the guest’s deductible, just to name a few. Target Pharmacy offers our guests a number of ways to save, including our 5% Pharmacy Rewards program and $4 options on hundreds of generic prescriptions.

     -Laurel Herold, Target Public Relations

CVS emailed this statement:

Pricing surveys do not accurately reflect what most pharmacy customers pay for their prescriptions, and are not effective in accurately comparing prices between pharmacies, due to various value, discount and third party insurance programs. In addition to price, other factors including location, convenience, store hours and the relationship with their pharmacist should be considered by customers when choosing a pharmacy.

     -Mike DeAngelis, CVS Public Relations Director

If you’d like to dig deeper into our price survey, we’ve posted the results here.

The out-of-pocket cost for those without insurance varied widely between pharmacies. U.S. Census estimates show about 15 percent of those living in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties are uninsured. That’s more than 66,000 people. There is help available for those who can’t afford their medications.

Nanette Isom doesn’t have insurance and needs 10 medications a day to maintain her health.

“I have high cholesterol, I have low thyroid, I’m a diabetic, and I have high blood pressure,” Isom said.

She’s had to make some tough choices in her life. When her family moved back to Youngstown 30 years ago, Isom was struggling to raise three young boys with her husband — who then lost his job and coverage.

“So yeah, Carl and I worried about those things. There were times when the boys ate and we said we were gonna eat later, but we weren’t gonna eat,” Isom said.

That’s where the Humility of Mary Health Partners Prescription Drug Assistance Program came in.

“Typically, we assist those that are uninsured or underinsured,” Hale said.

Manager Debbie Hale sees people like Nanette every day. The program serves 2,500 clients at three locations and works to keep them out of the emergency room.

“Well it’s important that they, you know, continue to take their medication so that they don’t have to have that readmission into the hospital,” Hale said.

Hale negotiates with different pharmaceutical companies to get prescriptions for free on a case-by-case basis.

“I just advise anybody to call us, you know, and we will do an intake over the phone and see what we can do to help,” Hale said.

Isom made that phone call 30 years ago and has saved a lot of money.

“Because of the program, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to eat or not because my medications are covered – it just makes life easier,” Isom said.

Easier for her and her son, who decided to take his mother’s advice and sign up for the program.

“Well, if your income is limited, which basically those are the clients that we’re working with, you know, you need to understand that every dollar counts,” Hale said.

“When it comes down to a matter of do I wanna live or do I wanna die, I wanna live,” Isom said.

You can find out much more about the Humility of Mary Health Partners Prescription Drug Assistance Program here.

Online discounts & coupons: Ohio’s Best Rx, Rx for Ohio, Good Rx

Reported by Erika Thomas

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