Post those drug prices

Marketplace Staff Oct 27, 2006

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: You might know what you want this election season, but politicians aren’t necessarily listening because they’re not talking about what voters really want to hear: The Real Agenda. Things like health care or the cost of prescription drugs. Ballot initiatives in Missouri and California want to use tobacco taxes to help fund healthcare. Some states are already experimenting with other solutions, putting health care costs in your hands. In Florida, the state is offering an online database to make drug pricing more transparent. Lyn Millner has the story.

LYN MILLNER: Tom Whyte lives in Florida. He pays full price for his prescription heart medications.

TOM WHYTE: Lovostatin. Metropolol. Synthroid and Lisinopril. Let me just get all the bills out here.

Whyte is 57. He had a heart attack four years ago. He’s in the hole financially from his quintuple bypass — $150,000. He doesn’t have health insurance, and his drugs aren’t covered.

WHYTE: If I were to buy them at Winn-Dixie across the street, I would probably spend about $120.

That’s $120 dollars a month, so Whyte gets his meds from Canada.

WHYTE: I can get a three-month supply there for $197.

He didn’t know about MyFloridaRx.com. Neither do most shoppers. Last June, the state of Florida created the online database. You enter your county, city, drug and dosage. Up pops a list of pharmacies and retail prices for your medication.

He’s disappointed to discover that his most expensive medication — Lovostatin — is not listed. Only the most common one hundred drugs are.

But even so, it’s a major step forward. Very few other states have a comparable online service. Most people have to call their neighborhood pharmacies to comparison shop. And the federal government is no help at all.

Frank Sloan is a health economist at Duke University.

FRANK SLOAN: The federal government in health policy has been sort of a Neanderthal and very slow sometimes. So if a state wants to do it, fine.

And the states have the data. In Florida, pharmacies report their prices when they file Medicaid claims. Experts say it’s only a matter of time before online databases spread to other states.

Florida state officials have seen prices go down, thanks to the database.

Christa Calamas is the Secretary for Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration. She says the pain drug Neurontin cost as much as $666 in Miami-Dade County.

CHRISTA CALAMAS: After MyFloridaRx.com, now, we see that $666 drop to about $142. And I can’t explain why there is such a disparity between pharmacies for one drug, same dosage.

It may be because the database isn’t always right, though Florida officials believe that it is. They say they average Medicaid claims and update the database once a month.

BRUCE JACOBS: This price is wrong, I can tell you right off the bat. That’s not what I charge.

Bruce Jacobs is the pharmacist at Edison Prescription Shoppe in Fort Myers. He checks his price on 40 milligrams of Lisinopril. It’s listed in the database at $53.25. His actual price?

JACOBS: $24.99. So, where’d they come up with the price? I don’t know.

I spot checked some other drugs by calling other pharmacies. And sure enough, the prices were lower than the ones online.

But not all of them are mistakes. In fact, prices do vary between pharmacies.

And Jacobs says he might adjust his prices based on the database, especially for regular customers, but maybe not for everybody.

JACOBS: Some people do nothing but price shop all day. And they’ll nit pick. They’ll only take one drug at the lowest price at the lowest pharmacy. Those people, you either deal with them, or you don’t deal with them. It depends how you feel on that day.

Let’s go back to Whyte, who has been searching and tallying all this time for his three other drugs that the database does list.

WHYTE: “OK. Math was never my strong point.”

If he nit-picked. If he drove to two pharmacies every month. He could save a grand total of $3.

WHYTE: “All this effort for $3?”

And if you factor in postage from Canada, it’s $8 in savings. So, the jury is still out on whether the database really helps.

In Fort Myers, Florida, I’m Lyn Millner for Marketplace Money.

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