Among the most popular posts on the portal have been those in our series on Free and Low Cost Health Care. In this post I would like to emphasize the importance of comparison shopping for medications. Prices for the same medication can vary dramatically from pharmacy to pharmacy. I would like to illustrate this by sharing the story of one of my patients.
An unpleasant experience at CVS
The patient was an 80 year old woman who had just undergone her first round of chemotherapy for cancer. Her physician prescribed Ondansetron, the generic version of Zofran, an anti-nausea drug used primarily in cancer treatment. Ondansetron is generally taken twice a day and the physician prescribed sixty 8 milligram pills in anticipation that the patient would undergo multiple rounds of chemotherapy.
When the patient went to pick up the prescription at her local CVS she was asked to pay $900. When she demurred from what seemed like an excessive price, the pharmacist offered to supply a lesser quantity of pills – 10 for $150. This was still the same price, but a lesser quantity of pills. The patient was informed that all pricing of drugs was done centrally by CVS and that nothing could be done at the store about the price. She left the pharmacy and asked me for assistance.
I checked my Epocrates software and learned that thirty 4mg Ondansetron tablets were available on drugstore.com for about $39.99. The equivalent price for this patient’s prescription (120 4mg tablets) would be $160, not $900. To verify that this was a fair price I called a local pharmacy I use frequently in the Bronx and asked them how much they charged for sixty 8 milligram tablets. I was told that they could sell this for $135, perhaps less if my patient did not have much money. When I mentioned the CVS price of $900 the pharmacist remarked, with a touch of irony, “that’s quite a mark-up.”
The “mark up” in this case meant that CVS charges roughly six times what other pharmacies are charging. I would consider this to be price-gouging (“pricing much higher than is considered reasonable or fair“). It is particularly concerning that the victim of this was a vulnerable elderly patient undergoing her first round of chemotherapy. Fortunately, she was able to get her medicine for considerably less at a pharmacy I recommended.
I wrote to CVS about this case and here is the gist of their reply:
1. CVS’s two primary drug chain competitors charge more for Ondansetron.
Learning that three of the major pharmacy chains all charge six times the going rate for Ondansetron is hardly reassuring. And, as I never tire of repeating to my sons, “the fact that someone else gets away with doing something wrong, doesn’t mean you should do it.”
2. CVS also sells other anti-nausea medicines (notably Prochlorperazine and Promethazine) at considerably less, about $10 for a ninety day prescription.
This may well be true, but what exactly does it mean for my patient? Certainly, CVS cannot suggest that she should have exercised some type of medical judgment that Promethazine (a drug she undoubtedly never heard of) was equivalent to the medicine prescribed by her oncologist. Should she have had the oncologist paged at 6PM to request a cheaper medicine? And what if the oncologist had stated that drugs like Ondansetron are considered among the drugs of choice for chemotherapy related vomiting? (See, for example, The Medical Letter, 12/15-29/2008)
3. Finally, CVS noted that it provided a variety of other services, such as expanded hours and online prescription ordering, that were not offered by its competitors.
Yes, but do such services justify these prices? And will my patient be making an informed choice when she spends the extra $700 plus dollars for the CVS extras?
Let the buyer beware
The most important lesson of this story is that drug prices vary dramatically from store to store. The chain stores are not always the cheapest. And, as many patients learn, you might have better luck bargaining with a local pharmacist.
What are the larger implications of this case?
As the debate over health care reform rages in Washington, it is important to keep in mind the fundamental question we face: Is health care just another commodity (like bricks or toothpaste) or is it a human right?
The social argument for making health care a commodity is based on the idea that market rationality will create an efficient health care system. Individual consumers guided by rational self-interest will make wise choices, rewarding efficient health care suppliers with their patronage and punishing inefficient health care suppliers. Of course, no actually existing health care system is run this way. And there are many ways in which health is not like a commodity. Nonetheless, the belief that rational markets will create efficiency in health care is behind many recent reforms internationally and the current proposals to have insurance companies administer the US health care system.
But a case like that of this patient shows several of the weaknesses of this argument. Having just received her first session of chemotherapy and without any medical expertise, this patient was particularly vulnerable and clearly in no position to make the presumably rational choice of – for example – calling up a variety of pharmacies to ask for alternate prices. Or of calling up her oncologist and querying her oncologist’s medical judgment. Or of deciding that she would prefer more nausea to less money.
Indeed, can there be an economically rational choice with respect to nausea versus money?
It might be argued that the responsibility for economic rationality lies with the physician, not the patient. But in this case the physician had prescribed a generic medication, an economically rational choice. Is one really to expect physicians to know the prices of all the medications they prescribe at all the potential pharmacies their patients visit?
This is a dramatic case, but the issues are similar in less dramatic ones.
Wouldn’t the rational thing be for the government to assure that people get the drugs they need and negotiate real prices with the drug companies? This solution is not without its own set of problems, but surely they are better than what happened to my patient.
A suggestion for action on this issue:
This story is old news. In August of 2004, the (then) New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer released a survey of drug prices in the state and documented “Sharp Price Differences … in Common Prescription Medications.” To remediate this situation the Attorney General’s office set up a website that would allow consumers to comparison shop the 150 most common drugs: http://rx.nyhealth.gov/pdpw/. Other States have undertaken similar initiatives.
The patient in this case graciously provided me with permission to share her story. I have no financial interests in any pharmaceutical company or drug store chain. I would not want readers of this column to construe this story as a specific endorsement of drugstore.com. Buyers should beware, always.
posted by Matt Anderson, MD