New Report: Community Pharmacists Beat Chains in Every Measure of Service

New Report: Community Pharmacists Beat Chains in Every Measure of Service

Last year, the Consumers Union published research showing independent pharmacies consistently sold prescription drugs for less than any U.S. pharmacy chain (see Independent Pharmacies Save You Big Money Over Chains). Now a new survey of more than 78,000 people shows independent pharmacists also outperformed the chains in every other measure! And it wasn’t a close contest.

Independents were rated superior in:

  • Helpfulness
  • Cleanliness
  • Courtesy
  • Accuracy
  • Knowledge of Pharmacists
  • Speed (both in fulfilling prescriptions and checkout)

The only surprise to AMIBA staff was just how poorly the specialty drug chains rated — well below not only independents but almost every supermarket and big box discounter with a pharmacy counter (the few exceptions: Safeway and Walmart scored lower than Rite Aid and Walgreens).

The survey also indicated the lower prices charged for common prescription drugs at community pharmacies are compounded by their knowledge and willingness to help customers find the best deal. Independent pharmacists were more than twice as likely to suggest a less expensive option than their chain counterparts.

The Consumers Union story includes several pieces of helpful advice,  including: “At least once a year, sit with your pharmacist for a complete medication review, a 15-minute checkup of everything you take, including vitamins, herbals, and over-the-counter drugs, along with any prescription medications. That can help you eliminate duplicate or unnecessary drugs.”

While this is a reasonable suggestion for people doing business with a community pharmacist, we’re eager to publish the findings of anyone who tries this at a large drug store chain!

 

 

“Independent pharmacists were more than twice as likely to suggest a less expensive option than their chain counterparts.”

The report also includes notable anecdotes about the service offered by local pharmacies, including Milwaukee‘s Hayat Pharmacy, which has staff who collectively can serve customers in 19 different languages among it’s several stores!

Finally, the survey found personal attention was far more than lip service at indie pharmacies: a majority of customers said their community pharmacist “knows me by name” — compared to just 14% of chain customers who said this.

The full report by Lisa Gill appears in the March issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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Media Gives Walmart Millions in Free Publicity for “Bait-and-Switch” Stunt on Drug Pricing

Media Gives Walmart Millions in Free Publicity for “Bait-and-Switch” Stunt on Drug Pricing

By Stacy Mitchell and Jeff Milchen
First published in October, 2016, in the Providence Journal

When Wal-Mart announced discounts on some generic drugs at Tampa area stores, its executives probably hoped for favorable publicity in Florida media. So Bentonville, Ark., where the chain is based, surely was festive the next day when sweeping headlines like “Wal-Mart to sell generic drugs for $4 a month” ran nationwide.

With the media providing better advertising than even a multibillion-dollar corporation can buy, Wal-Mart cleverly pumped out another press release announcing drug discounts in 14 other states and was rewarded with another bonanza of national headlines.

But was this really front-page news?

First, there still are no price cuts whatsoever for Wal-Mart customers in 35 states.

Next, Wal-Mart is not discounting generic drugs in general: It offered the $4 price on 291 of the several thousand generic drugs commonly available.

Further, even a casual look at Wal-Mart’s initial list revealed just 124 different drugs (later increased to 143).

So where did the 291 come from? One needn’t have looked past the letter “A” to see: 12 different variations of the antibiotic amoxicillin. Many other common drugs appear in multiple dosages, including some already available for less than $4.

In the end, a global corporation decided to discount a small portion of one product line in a few locations and received millions of dollars worth of free publicity promoting its “low-price” image.

The benefit to Wal-Mart was huge. A poll by The Wall Street Journal found just 13 percent of respondents usually filled prescriptions at Wal-Mart, Target or other mass merchants. That was before Wal-Mart’s PR stunt. After the media barrage and matching offers by Target and other mass merchants, a stunning 50 percent of those respondents said they would be likely, very likely or “absolutely certain” to fill prescriptions at these stores.

They should think twice.

True, certain Wal-Mart customers who need one of the chosen drugs and lack insurance will save money. But unless shoppers check in advance to see if their needed medication is among the select few, they’re likely to become victims of what the National Community Pharmacists Association calls “a classic bait-and-switch.”

Unfortunately, the relative costs and benefits of buying drugs from various sources remain largely unknown to most citizens. Contrary to common perception, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates independent pharmacies, not Wal-Mart or other chains, usually provide the best value.

In 2003, the State of Maine researched prices of 15 common prescription drugs at independent and chain pharmacies of all kinds statewide. The 10 lowest-priced pharmacies all were independents, beating all five Wal-Marts in the study.

Around the same time, studies by New York City and by Senior Action Council in Albany, N.Y., also affirmed lower overall drug pricing at independent pharmacies than chain competitors.

And independents not only compete on price, they do it while offering more than just pills. In 2003, the venerable Consumer Reports magazine surveyed 32,000 readers about their experiences at thousands of pharmacies, including independents, chains and those within supermarkets and mass merchants.

Though mass merchants had a small edge on price alone, independents trounced the chains in overall value by “an eye-popping margin.”

2018 Update: When Consumer reports executed similar studies in 2018, independent pharmacies beat the chains on price, too! (the same was true in 2015)

The survey found all chain stores were more likely to lack a needed medication, took longer to get out-of-stock medications, and provided less personal attention compared to independents. And personal service from your neighborhood drugstore means more than asking “how’s the family?” For anyone taking multiple medications, their pharmacist’s attention can be crucial to avoiding dangerous drug combinations.

Unfortunately, the credulous coverage of Wal-Mart’s drug promotion is not exceptional. Last November, the company released a self-commissioned study asserting that Wal-Mart saved $2,329 annually for an “average” household — a remarkable claim that proved grossly inaccurate owing to serious flaws in methodology. Yet national media outlets promptly trumpeted the results (some still cite the study) without providing independent analysis. (See this critique by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance)

The massive promotion budgets of national chains can lead even critical thinkers to perceive, often wrongly, that chains provide greater value than our neighborhood businesses. Reporters and editors should help their readers make fully-informed choices by providing independent analysis, not just a critic’s sound bite, when Wal-Mart issues its next press release.

Americans should know they don’t have to choose between competitive prices and quality service — they likely can receive both at local businesses that invest more in their products and services than public relations.

Jeff Milchen is a co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance. Stacy Mitchell is the Co-Director & Director, Community-Scaled Economy Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

2018 Consumers Union Report Shows Independent Pharmacies Save You Big Money Over Chains

2018 Consumers Union Report Shows Independent Pharmacies Save You Big Money Over Chains

By Janna Williams and Jeff Milchen

In its May 2018 issue, Consumer Reports magazine published the results of a drug price investigation it undertook to learn who offers the best value for prescription drugs. The Consumers Union (publisher of the magazine) team called more than 150 pharmacies in six metro regions to get cost quotes for five commonly-prescribed drugs.

The result? Independent pharmacies beat major chain drugstores, supermarkets and big box discounters on price — and by a stunning margin. Independents also handily beat the membership warehouse Sam’s Club, and only were edged out by less than two percent by Costco, where customers pay $60 annually for a membership before being able to shop.* Average total cost for the five drugs are shown in the graphic and are individually broken out further below. In every city, the lowest price available for each drug was found at an independent, but some independents had much higher prices, so be sure to compare!

Unlike its last (2015) investigation of drug prices, Consumer Reports did not gather service-oriented ratings. They reported then, “at least 90 percent of shoppers at independents rated their pharmacy as Excellent or Very Good in speed & accuracy, courtesy & helpfulness, and pharmacists’ knowledge. No other type of drugstore came close.”

The Consumers Union’s online Pharmacy Guide reports just four percent of independent pharmacy customers complained of long waits for service compared to 21 percent at chain-based outlets. The Guide also notes “Independents are still your best bet for anytime delivery.”

So how can Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and other chains get away with charging you 500 – 800 percent more than independent competitors? Chain pharmacies often claim “almost nobody pays full price,” but that’s disputed by many sources, including watchdogs, independents, and even Costco, which told Consumer Reports one-third of their prescription drug sales involve no insurance.

Independents still comprise 36 percent of all retail pharmacies in the U.S. (the other 64 percent includes stand-alone chains, supermarket chains, and big box stores’ pharmacies). After a sharp decline from the years 1980 – 2000, the number of independent pharmacies has been stable in recent years (22,041 as of 2017). With independent pharmacies providing superior speed, service, and pricing, why are chains not shuttering their doors while opportunities expand for community pharmacists?

For one, patients often are prevented from gaining the information needed to make well-informed decisions. Pharmacists sometimes are contractually prohibited by insurance companies or Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) from telling patients when using insurance will cost them more money through co-payments vs. paying cash!

Lisa Gill, Deputy Editor at Consumer Reports considers such “gag rules” a travesty. “It’s deeply troubling that a pharmacist can be barred from speaking honestly with a patient,” Gill told us. “And such clauses are likely indicative of deeper problems within these PBM agreements harming consumers as well as independent pharmacies.” The National Community Pharmacists Association found 59 percent of survey respondents had experienced such “gag clauses” at least 10 times in the previous month.

A bill recently was introduced in Congress to ban these restrictions, but the PBM corporations that are making big profits while driving up drug costs will be investing heavily to dissuade any action.

PBMs aren’t the only ones standing in the way of lower prescription drug costs. Many health plans (including Medicare) steer people to “preferred” pharmacies, typically meaning a chain with which they’ve negotiated the most profitable arrangement. These almost invariably exclude most community pharmacies — harming customers and local pharmacists alike. With Medicare, this seems to be another case of our own government favoring the largest corporations at the expense of independent businesses.

Getting Drugs Online

Excluding independent pharmacies from preferred lists also can drive consumers toward cheap online drug stores, with negative consequences for customers. “When getting prescriptions by mail order or online, you’re breaking the relationship between the pharmacist and the patient,” says John Norton, Director of Public Relations at the National Community Pharmacists Association. Norton notes that adherence (patients following the prescribed dosage, frequency, duration, and abstaining from dangerous drug combinations) is greater when people fulfill their prescription at an independent pharmacy. He adds, “if you have side effects and call an online merchant with questions, they’ll do their best, but there’s no substitute for the personal knowledge and bond between a patient and their community pharmacist.”

For those with no urgency and who are willing to forego personal service, Consumer Reports found the lowest prices at HealthWarehouse.com (see chart). Note their shipping terms say “add 3-7 business days of processing time to all orders” on top of shipping times of 2-8 days for their free service. Faster shipping costs more (to $30 for next day service), which exceeds the total cost of all but one drug in the survey.

*Costco allows people to purchase only prescription drugs without a membership by getting a special pass.

The May 2018 print edition of Consumer Reports features additional coverage.

STATES TAKING ACTION

Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan and Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine introduced a bill into Congress to ban gag clauses nationwide, while 19 states have enacted legislation out of the 38 that considered prohibiting these restrictions.

Click on this image to see how your State is addressing these issues

Independent business advocates: this survey is simple enough to replicate in your city or state and can be a great news hook to generate positive media coverage while engaging your local pharmacies! Contact us for assistance (free for AMIBA affiliates and business members). Learn more about how to educate people in your area about the benefits of doing business locally: get a free copy of our guide to effective public education campaigns.

Related Resources

Find an independent pharmacist near you.

For those wondering what happened to Walmart’s $4 generic drugs, they were largely a bait-and-switch publicity stunt from the beginning.

The Consumers Union suggests asking three questions of your pharmacist before purchasing drugs:
1. Is a generic available for any of my meds?
2. Would a 90-day prescription save me money?
3. Are there any discounts that could lower my price?

For more on the problem of corporate Pharmacy Benefit Managers like CVS/Caremark, we recommend this 2017 article: The Hidden Monopolies That Raise Drug Prices. The NCPA and Truth RX also address this issue in-depth.