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Prescription for Bid Rx: Drug buying options

Helen Palmer Aug 4, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We all try to be careful consumers. Shop around for the best prices. But when you need prescription drugs it gets complicated. You’d have to call all your local pharmacies to find out who has the best deal. If that sounds like a business opportunity to you, you’re too late. There’s a new online venture called BidRx.com. The founders say they want to do for prescription medicines what Travelocity and Expedia have done for travel. From the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer has the story.

HELEN PALMER: Tom Kellenberger, a retired pharmacist, was so fed up with the lack of information about drug prices that he helped invent BidRx.

TOM KELLENBERGER: It’s a consumer-driven website that really empowers consumers to comparison-shop for prescription drugs.

You need a prescription to register. Enter the drug’s name and the website will list other drugs that treat the same condition, with their prices.

KELLENBERGER: We’ve got many testimonials from consumers who go back to their doctor and say, “Doctor, is there any reason that instead of the $139 drug that I’m taking that the $22 drug wouldn’t be effective for me?

Kellenberger says doctors are usually happy to make the switch. Then you choose whether you want bids from just local drug stores or from mail-order pharmacies as well.

Pharmacies that are members of BidRx — there are several thousand already — will offer their best price for filling your prescription.

Hayden Huskamp teaches health economics at Harvard Medical School. She says BidRx could really help the uninsured, who pay the highest drug costs.

HAYDEN HUSKAMP: BidRx will give them information about where is the cheapest place that they can find a particular drug. It’ll tell them about other, cheaper drugs that might work for them, and it will also encourage pharmacies to compete on their dispensing fees.

Huskamp says it could also help people with insurance with a high deductible, who have to spend $5,000 or so out-of-pocket before insurance kicks in. BidRx could squeeze the local corner pharmacy.

At Johnson’s Drug store in Waltham, Mass., they’ve been counting out and dispensing pills for 150 years. But pharmacist-owner Steve Bernardi doesn’t see BidRx as a threat. He says his prices are already competitive and he offers important services.

STEVE BERNARDI: We’re sort of the gatekeepers of people’s medication, so some services are worth paying for. It shouldn’t always just be about price.

Bernardi says pharmacists like him know their customers and always check for drug interactions, for example. If people get their meds from several different pharmacies, that might not happen. Kellenberger says BidRx saves cash by cutting out the middle man — the PBM, the pharmacy benefit manager, who negotiates drug prices for insurance companies. But the head of the PBMs’ trade association, Mark Merritt, says he welcomes this competition.

MARK MERRITT: We have 200 million Americans who use PBMs who generate discounts of 25 percent and better for consumers. And if BidRx can get there and compete, welcome to the game.

BidRx will only work if a critical mass of pharmacies and patients sign on. Kellenberger says insurance companies are interested. It’s free to patients and doctors by the way. Kellenberger says he’ll make money the same way Google does . . . advertising!

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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