Some Americans pay up to 10 times more for common drugs, survey shows

Americans spent $374 billion on prescription drugs last year, but results from a new national survey finds they could be spending up to 10 times more than is necessary for common medications.

Consumer Reports hired secret shoppers to make more than 300 phone calls to more than 200 pharmacies around the country, requesting prices for five common generic drugs.

"(We) discovered enormous price variations around the country, but also within the same zip code," Consumer Reports prescription drug editor Lisa Gill told "CBS This Morning" Tuesday. "Most people would not think, 'Hey, I'm going to pick up the phone and call around,' but you can save a bundle of money if you do."

The cost of Cymbalta, a popular antidepressant, ranged from $249 at Walgreens -- with a discount -- to $43 at Costco, located only a few miles away.

A monthly supply of a generic blood thinner, Plavix, cost $150 at CVS, but just $16 at Costco.

Overall, wholesale stores such as Costco emerged with the lowest prices. Furthermore, Costco does not require a membership to fill prescriptions at its pharmacies.

Consumer Reports asked the popular warehouse store about its significantly cheaper prices.

"They said, 'We don't have drive-thrus, we close on Sundays, we close early on the evenings...,'" said Gill. "Just not as many services, but they offer rock-bottom prices."

At the other end of the spectrum, major retail stores such as CVS and Rite Aid had the heftiest price tags. Reps from both retailers told Consumer Reports that "two or three percent of our business is cash business."

"But that's a lot of people," Gill said.

In response to CBS News' inquiry for comment, CVS Corporate Communications Senior Director Mike DeAngelis said, "The drug price provided by one pharmacy in response to a survey may be the cost under a cash discount program while a different pharmacy may provide the full retail price for the same drug, which creates an inaccurate comparison."

But Consumer Reports also found that even those who have insurance could be overpaying -- and more surprisingly, sometimes not using insurance at all could save money.

"If your insurance doesn't cover your drug well, we discovered a third of Americans who take drugs... told us they experience spikes at the pharmacy counter. They spend up to $100 or more," Gill said.

Only 17 percent of Americans shop around for a lower price, but Gill said this is the smarter move for your wallet. When Consumer Reports' secret shoppers negotiated for "best deals," they discovered a dramatic change in prices.

"That's where we saw discounts in lots of cases," said Gill. "One pharmacy offered us a drug at $75. And we asked, 'What is the lowest possible deal you could give us because we're not going to use insurance?' They said $21 instead."

To get the best deals for prescription drugs, Consumer Reports advises consumers to:

  • Call around
  • Offer to pay cash
  • Ask for discounts or coupons
  • Check for monthly price changes
  • Confirm prescription plan drug tiers

"Shopping for medication should not be like shopping or a car, you should not have to haggle, you should not have to make comparison but the price differences turn out to be so incredible that if you don't have insurance -- or if the insurance isn't working very well, you have no choice," said Gill.

Visit consumerreports.org for more resources and information on how to vet fair drug prices.