Bitter pills

When Margaret Anderson e-mailed me to say that her husband's Pravacol costs "considerably less" at Kroger than at WalMart, it was déjà vu all over again. My very first column ["Lowest price prescription or it's free," October 1, 1996, C-Ville] was about prescription-drug prices, and the subject got me so worked up that I covered it again two weeks later.
    Back then I was examining Phar-Mor's claim that if its price wasn't the lowest in town, the prescription was free. Here's what that really meant: if you found a lower price, Phar-Mor would beat it by fifty cents– but they wouldn't give it to you for free. I thought that was deceptive advertising.
    Good news, Phar-Mor: This time around, you're the winner– or, at least, the winner in my comparison-shopping spree among Charlottesville's five big pharmacies: WalMart, Kroger, CVS, Giant, and Phar-Mor.
    First, some details about Anderson's husband and his experience with the WalMart pharmacy. After watching the price for the cholesterol-lowering drug Pravacol go up every time he refilled his prescription, he switched to Kroger and paid 12 percent less. One problem: 90 days elapsed between refills, which made the results less than scientific. To be accurate, I would need to compare the amount charged by the two pharmacies on the same day.
    So I got each pharmacy's price for 90 tablets of Pravacol (20 mg) on May 16, and guess what? WalMart ($251.78) was only 19 cents higher than Kroger ($251.59), and about $2 cheaper than Giant ($253.99). At the extremes were CVS ($263.99) and Phar-Mor ($224.97); the difference between the two is 17 percent.
    But take a look at the other prescription the Andersons filled: for the antibiotic metronidazol, they found a whopping variance of 155 percent between Kroger and WalMart– and this time, the two purchases were only one month apart.
    I applied my same-day test for metronidazol, and came up with a more modest— but still attention-getting— difference of 41 percent. In this case Giant ($12.93) was cheaper than WalMart ($13.84), but Kroger was again less than either ($11.79). CVS was still the highest, at $15.89, and Phar-Mor, at $11.29, was again the lowest.
    Why do prices for generic drugs vary so much more than those for brand names? Because, as pharmacist Forrest Marshall explains, different manufacturers can make the same generic, whereas a brand-name drug– i.e., one still protected by its patent– is the property of a single company.
    Consumer Reports did an in-depth investigation of drugstores ["Relief for the Rx Blues," October 1999], in which they compared prices for five frequently prescribed drugs at 26 pharmacies. They also asked readers to detail their experiences with various kinds of pharmacies– mass-market, independent, chain, and supermarket– and rate each one for service, information, and speed.
    You might want to consider what those 18,000 respondents had to say, for instance, about service: Phar-Mor earned one of those nasty little black circles, whereas Kroger's was half red and half white. If you're a CR reader, you know that's the difference between "really bad" and "pretty good."
    Overall, when you combine the respondents' ratings for all three factors (service, information, and speed), Kroger comes in first, Giant and WalMart are tied for second, CVS is third, and Phar-Mor's a dismal fourth.
    So here's my suggestion. When you get a prescription, check around for the best price– but consider other aspects as well. In my case, the CVS at Barracks Road is on my way to work, and if I go early in the morning, there's almost no wait. After work, though, it's another story. As for Kroger, if I drop a prescription off before I begin shopping, it's almost certain to be ready when I'm finished. On the other hand, I almost never shop at Rio Hill, so getting Phar-Mor's lower price would have to be weighed against the inconvenience of getting there.
    One important caveat: I'm blessed with insurance. If I weren't, I'd pick up War and Peace– and head for the cheapest place I could find. Inconvenience be damned!

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902.