Personalized care like that is what many people value in a drugstore — and where independent pharmacies often seem to excel. That’s according to Consumer Reports’ pharmacy ratings, based on survey responses from more than 78,000 Consumer Reports members. Mom-and-pop stores earned high marks on such measures as courtesy, helpfulness, and speed of checkout and filling prescriptions, as well as pharmacists’ knowledge and accuracy.
Powerful forces are threatening the more than 23,500 independent pharmacies across the United States. Megamergers among national corporations could disrupt the $453 billion retail pharmacy industry.
Still, “independent pharmacies historically have been really good at adapting when faced with competition,” says Hashim Zaibak, an owner of Hayat Pharmacy.
Mike Swanoski, an associate professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Minnesota, agrees. “The owners live in these communities,” he says, “and decisions about how to best serve their communities may be made due to a deeper understanding of the needs of their patients.”
While independents land at the top of CR’s ratings because of their customer service and speediness at filling prescriptions, that’s not all you should consider when choosing a pharmacy. Other factors include cost, convenience and the services offered. Here are tips on how to find the best pharmacy for your needs, and how to get the most out of any pharmacy you go to.
Find a 'preferred' pharmacy
If you have insurance, your co-pay might be the same no matter which pharmacy you choose. But that’s not always the case. Many insurers negotiate special deals with drugstores, offering lower out-of-pocket costs when you fill prescriptions at a preferred pharmacy. And almost all Medicare Part D plans, and most plans offered by employers, include preferred pharmacies.
When people don’t use one of those pharmacies, they pay an average of 36 percent more for their meds, according to a 2017 survey from the Pharmacy Benefit Management Institute.
CR’s tip: Ask the pharmacist, your insurer or your employer’s human resource department whether the drugstore you’re considering is on your plan’s list of preferred pharmacies. If not, ask how much more you would pay at a different store.
Ask for the best price
Even at preferred pharmacies, how much you pay for your meds can depend on other factors, notably whether pharmacists there are willing to work with you to find discounts and other ways to save on drugs.
While that can happen in any pharmacy, it’s more likely at independents. Twenty-one percent of people in our survey said pharmacists at those stores were able to suggest a less expensive medication compared with 9 percent who said pharmacists in chain stores were able to.
CR’s tips: CR’s shoppers have found that asking “Is this your lowest price?” at a pharmacy can save them cash even with insurance.
Pharmacists used to be bound by “gag clauses” that prevented them from mentioning a lower price unless you asked. That restriction no longer exists thanks to 2018 legislation — long supported by CR. But it’s a good idea for you to take the initiative. The question may prompt pharmacists to consider discount programs or look into discounts offered through websites such as GoodRx and Blink Health. Or it might encourage them to look for a generic or similar drug that works just as well but costs less.
If you don’t have insurance or if you don’t want to use your insurance for some reason, note that CR’s shoppers have found that out-of-pocket prices at stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club can be lower than those at big pharmacy chains. Or try the online pharmacy HealthWarehouse.com, which also has low prices.
Decide what services matter
The range of services offered by pharmacies, including chains and independents, is growing fast. Many now offer flu and other vaccinations, including travel vaccines. Some help manage “specialty” drugs, complicated medications that require injections or infusions. And some pharmacies can monitor blood pressure or blood sugar levels.
“Patients spend a lot more time in their local pharmacy than in the doctor’s office, so I see it as a great opportunity to get their blood pressure checked,” says Michael Hochman, director of the Gehr Center for Health Systems Science at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Some chains are adding walk-in health clinics to their stores, where you can get basic care even on weekends and at night without an appointment. Many chain and big-box stores have smartphone apps or websites that allow you to manage your prescription refills and schedule flu shots or other immunizations. Rite Aid, Walgreens and Walmart even offer low-cost prescription meds for pets.
Independent pharmacies sometimes offer more niche services. For example, last year when Linda and Earl Bullock of Eastland, Tex., needed help choosing a Medicare Part D plan, they enlisted the help of Benjamin McNabb, at Love Oak Pharmacy. He was able to help them choose a plan that covered all of their drugs and was affordable, too. Love Oak Pharmacy can also help homebound patients manage complex drug regimens.
CR’s tips: Talk with your pharmacist and find out what services they offer.
Experts say it’s generally okay to use a pharmacy for your vaccines or go to a retail clinic for basic health problems such as a rash or sprain, but it’s still important to have a primary care physician and to keep that doctor in the loop. For example, share the results of your blood pressure tests with your physician, and let him or her know you got a flu shot so that the information is noted in your medical record.
Independents, for all their benefits, may be less likely to be open for as many days or hours as big chains such as CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens. Those chains have stores that offer 24-hour, 7-day-a-week service, as well as convenient locations and even drive-through windows.
Mail order is an option if you want to skip stores altogether. You can often arrange for deliveries through your insurer, an online drugstore such as HealthWarehouse.com, or a walk-in store with a mail-order program, such as Costco.
CR’s tip: Convenience does matter, and the easier it is for you to fill your prescriptions, the more likely you might be to take the drugs you need. But don’t choose a pharmacy just because of its hours, especially if you have a complicated drug regimen that could benefit from the close attention of a pharmacist.
Stick with one store
Once you settle on a pharmacy, stick with it, says Barbara Young of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. That ensures that all of your medications — and those of your family — will be saved in a single computer system. Pharmacists can easily check for possible interactions with any new medications you start or flag other safety concerns.
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, says Chris Antypas, co-owner of Asti’s South Hills Pharmacy.
CR’s tip: By having all of your prescriptions filled at a single place, the pharmacist might be able to “sync” them so that they’re refilled at the same time.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Read more at ConsumerReports.org.