A June 1 Health article incorrectly suggested that consumers are required to pay membership fees in order to buy prescription drugs at Sam's Club and Costco stores. Nonmembers may buy these items at the same prices paid by members. (Published 6/8/04)

While many Medicare beneficiaries are trying to decide which discount drug program to join, other people are also looking for the best prices on medications. The latest edition of Washington Consumers' Checkbook offers detailed advice on how to save money when filling prescriptions, based on a survey that the ad-free magazine made of 17 brand-name and generic drugs.

The best prices among local retailers were found at discounters Sam's Club and Costco. But not far behind these behemoths was Larry Morrison.

No second cousin of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, Morrison has been running the Manassas Pharmacy for the past 21 years. According to the Checkbook survey, drugs that would cost an average of $100 at pharmacies elsewhere would cost you only $80 at Morrison's sole location. (You could cut that to $70 at Sam's Club or $74 at Costco, but Morrison won't charge you an annual membership fee at his place on Sudley Road.)

The magazine report is part of a seven-city survey that found drug prices lowest in Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul and highest in . . . Washington. And the differences were substantial: Prices in D.C. were 6 percent higher than the overall average, and about 12 percent higher than the least expensive cities.

Robert Krughoff, president of the nonprofit group that publishes Checkbook, said he was surprised at "how big the price differences were. . . . We were looking at common drugs where you might pay $300 at one pharmacy and $200 at another pharmacy."

"I think the fact that CVS was so expensive was surprising, too, and Rite Aid was up there, too. These are big chains, and I think people presume that they're going to have better prices than these mom-and-pop independents, and that didn't prove to be the case."

Indeed, the survey found that drugs priced at $108 at the average Washington-area independent drugstore would cost almost the same -- $106 -- at local chain stores such as CVS, Rite Aid, Giant and Eckerd.

Checkbook's article said some drugs -- the estrogen replacement Premarin, for example -- are much less expensive to obtain from Canadian pharmacies, but for others, such as the antibiotic amoxicillin, "the Canadian price is higher than what you would pay at almost any brick-and-mortar pharmacy in the U.S."

"The only people who really don't care about this are people who pay a flat amount" in drug co-payments, said Krughoff, but there is "an increasing number of these consumer-driven plans, or catastrophic plans, and for all of those people, they want to keep [their drug spending] as low as they can."

"They're marking drugs up quite a bit more than I do," Morrison said of his big competitors. He could do likewise, "but I can't in good faith charge someone an enormous price. . . . You have to sleep at night."

-- Tom Graham

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