Update I-Team 10 investigation: Cost of prescription drugs
Posted at: 05/23/2012 6:22 AM
| Updated at: 05/24/2012 6:35 PM
By: Berkeley Brean | WHEC.com
Dealing with cancer is hard enough. One of the last things you want to worry about is money -- like how do you pay for your drugs, what do they cost and where can you get the best deal for them? So we wanted to see if we could do some of the work for you.
To find out how this impacts you, scroll below
I-Team10 dug into the numbers and we don't think you're going to like what he found out.
By the end of our reporting the one thing we can conclude is that when it comes to prescription drug prices, nothing is easy and a lot of it doesn't makes sense. We looked at the breast cancer drug Arimidex and its generic -- Anastrozole.
It's the same drug that Donna Brown is taking right now.
Donna Brown's story
"My husband and I just took a cruise in September of 2011 for my 50th birthday," Donna Brown said as she pointed to the family pictures on the mantle. These are the memories Donna cherishes because 15 years ago, she didn't think she would have them.
"Found a lump went and got it checked out and unfortunately they told me it was cancer," she said.
Donna was 36 years old.
She thought about her children as she was lying on the table about to get a biopsy.
"I just kind of remember, it hit me, like holy moly my kids are in kindergarten and first grade, what on earth is going on here?" she said. "This just can't be."
Donna beat the cancer. But 10 years later -- it came back.
"It's someone you love more than anyone in the world and you know and you see them going through something, see them suffering," her husband Mike Brown said. Tears were welling up in his eyes.
This time Donna went on the brand-name breast cancer drug Arimidex and it was expensive. For a 90 day supply she started paying $870 a month. Within a year her bills show it was more than a thousand.
Donna gets some good news
But at that point she got some good news. The patent expired and the generic Anastrozole hit the market.
"Oh, it was great. It was a nice change to go to generic," Donna said.
Donna and her family were saving about a thousand dollars every three months. But this is where the story gets confusing because I-Team 10 decided to go ahead and price the drug Anastrozole. We called five different pharmacies and we asked for the cash price. We couldn't believe what we found, so this is where we did some digging.
These are 30 day supply, one milligram numbers. (Notice how the price for the brand name Arimidex is fairly similar from one pharmacy to the next but the generic Anastrozole is all over the map)
Walmart $519.72 $107.32
Walgreens $527.99 $319.99
CVS $530 $280
Wegmans $481.70 $93.99
AWP -- Average Wholesale Price
"Its very confusing to a patient to try to figure out what a price really is for a drug," Timothy Warner said. He is the Associate Director of Pharmacy at Strong. He says pharmacies based their prices on something called the average wholesale price -- or AWP.
"So they'll take a drug and say AWP is I, I will discount AWP by Y. That'll be above what my cost is and it'll be a percentage discount off of AWP," Warner said.
We found out the company that sets the AWP is called First Databank. So we asked them what the average wholesale price is for Anastrozole. First Databank said "we cannot release any information."
We asked the pharmacies how they priced their drugs -- specifically Anastrozole. They're answers were as generic as the drug.
The pharmacies responses
In emails, CVS wrote their pricing is based "on a store's local competition" and "other operational factors." Walgreens wrote "we urge people to find one pharmacy that offers the best value in terms of pricing, convenience, service and accessibility."
Walmart said it's cannot explain why it's not the lowest price but said they're "always striving to have the lowest price." Wegmans declined to talk on camera about how it arrives "at a retail price, especially," they write, "when ours are among the most-competitive."
None of the pharmacies we called would give specific reasons why they priced Anastrozole the way they did.
Donna Brown takes one pill a day and will for at least the next two years.
"You take the drug everyday hoping that it's doing what it's supposed to do," she said.
She and her husband were surprised when we showed them the cash price numbers we found for the drug that -- for the moment -- keeps her cancer away.
"I guess in this case if you're going to be paying the cash price and you don't have insurance you really better shop around," Mike Brown said.
"To think that there's such a huge difference in price for a cancer drug that someone has to take. I don't know why they wouldn't give you the best price that they can. It pays to shop around," Donna said.
So what does this mean for you?
If you have insurance you almost never pay the cash price. You are only charged the pre-negotiated price set by your insurance provider and the drug maker.
Tim Warner at Strong cautions against shopping around for prescription drugs like you might with groceries. He advises that people stay with one pharmacy so the pharmacist knows what you're taking and can guard against dangerous mixtures.
What if someone does not have insurance? Could they pay that cash price?
That's possible. But the pharmacists we talked to said they would give the customer the county's prescription drug discount card or offer their own company discount drug card.
Do we see the same price fluctuations with other generics?
If they've been on the market for a long time -- it's possible. Anastrozole came out in the summer of 2010. But if you look at the generic for Lipitor -- Atorvastatin -- the generic prices are all in the same ballpark.
Timothy Warner says wait a couple of years when more companies are able to make it and those prices could start going like this.
The Drug Makers' Alternative
The drug Arimidex is made by AstraZeneca. When the company saw our story they contacted us and pointed to a program that allows people to buy brand-name Arimidex for $40 a month, directly from AstraZeneca. The company will deliver the prescription drug to your home.
Click here to read about the program.
If you have a story you want I-Team 10 to investigate, email us at email@example.com or call 585-546-0772.