Comparison Shopping Can Reduce Prescription Drug Prices

Published December 1, 2002

High prescription drug prices and what to do about them were high on the campaign agendas of candidates across the country, and those issues will likely find their way into legislative proposals at the state and federal level next year. But advocates of having the government “do something” to lower drug prices may be overlooking a far simpler solution.

A September survey of prescription drug pricing in Missouri discovered consumers can save up to 81 percent on their prescriptions simply by comparison shopping.

The survey obtained prescription prices by calling pharmacies in Jefferson City, St. Louis, and Sedalia in central Missouri. In each city one discount store or supermarket, one chain drug store, and one independent “mom and pop” retailer were chosen. Stores included Tolson Drug, Cordes, Bing’s, Walgreens, Medicine Shoppe, Osco, Gerbes, Schnuck’s, and Wal-Mart.

Prices were collected for a 30-day supply of one of four popular prescription medications in commonly prescribed dosages, and reflect costs that would be incurred by uninsured customers with no other means of cost reduction.

Among the key findings of the survey:

  • Comparison shopping for two generic prescription drugs would save 81 percent;
  • Comparison shopping for two brand-name drugs would save an average 9.7 percent;
  • The lowest generic prices were spread evenly among supermarkets, chain drug stores, and independent retailers;
  • “Mom and pop” drug stores offered significantly lower costs on branded prescriptions.

The survey also discovered a pharmacy that offers a competitive price for one prescription may not offer the best prices for other drugs. For example, three of the nine pharmacies surveyed failed to offer the cheapest price for any of the four prescriptions requested, over half had the most costly price for at least one prescription, and one-third offered both the highest and lowest retail prices for at least one of the four drugs.

“One lesson from this survey is that we don’t need more government regulations, bureaucracies, or entitlement programs to reduce the cost of prescription drugs,” said Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute, the national research organization that released the survey results. “Instead of pandering to voters by promising price controls and other policies that don’t work in the long run, elected officials should simply advise voters to buy prescriptions the same way they buy groceries and appliances: by comparison shopping.”

Every once in a while, a problem is actually smaller than it appears to be. Consumers could save billions of dollars a year on prescription drugs simply by calling two or three stores and asking for prices before they buy.

The survey was conducted by Public Issue Management, LLP, St. Paul, Minnesota, in September 2002.

Greg Lackner is public affairs director for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

Complete results of the Public Issue Management Survey are available on The Heartland Institute Web site. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #10798.

A survey conducted by ABC News in Michigan found similar results, available on the Internet at