prescriptions neon store sign
prescriptions neon store sign

people in line at pharmacy

(Updated 2022) As we wrote in an earlier blog post on birth control prices, when you need to fill a prescription, it pays to shop around.

What do birth control pills cost? Prices can vary a little or a lot. Compare big box pharmacies, such as Rite Aid, CVS, Costco or Walgreens, with the little independent guys. The same is true for other prescriptions, too — prices vary — though our recent research project focused on birth-control pills because they’re widely used, and interesting for  a number of reasons.

(We’ll talk about free birth control in another post. As you guessed, it’s complicated.)

Paying cash? Costco has a reputation for rock-bottom-low prices.

“Costco has a well-publicized pricing strategy of charging the wholesale price plus a standardized 14% mark-up on everything it sells, including prescriptions,” Dr. Leslie Ramirez told ClearHealthCosts in 2013. She said that others’ drug pricing involves hefty markups, noting that the pricing of medications, from brands to generics, are opaque in the extreme.

Insured? It might be that Costco will still be your best option. We don’t have deep experience with this, but anecdotally people keep telling us that they can buy cheaper outside of their insurance plan depending on the medication.

While reporting on birth control prices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, we spoke to dozens of neighborhood and chain drug stores, asking for their cash or self-pay prices. Those prices ranged broadly: one pill, Tri-Sprintec 28, ranged from $9 to $63; another, Yaz-28, ranged from $68 to $112. Several pharmacists  said they often reduce the cash price for uninsured customers to make pills affordable.

While independent pharmacies may have more control over their prescription prices, what they don’t usually offer are “club card” discounts. CVS, Rite Aid, Kmart and almost every other big chain pharmacy has a discount program. Some are free. Others require a $10 or $20 annual membership fee.

But how great are these discounts? According to our research, club members can save anywhere from $5 to $25 for a prescription, depending on the chain and the prescription. But before signing up for the club card, know that once you do, the chain will track your history.

Furthermore, we’ve had people tell us they’re pretty dissatisfied with some club cards, both from stores and from third parties — the city, the county, the Chamber of Commerce or whoever offers the card. The discounts aren’t always as advertised online and are often arbitrary – some prescriptions are discounted, others are not. So it’s good to do a bit of research before you sign up.

Another option for the best birth control price: online coupons. (a site with price comparisons) shows coupons that offer a variety of discounts on prescription drugs. Again,  we’ve heard of coupons being rejected at local chain stores. Apparently not all retailers honor these discounts. Also, manufacturer’s coupons are available for many medications, including some popular birth-control pills.

As we so often hear online, “if something is free, then you are the product being sold.”

Many people who know and trust their neighborhood pharmacist will patronize that drug store for years, even if the price at CVS is a few bucks cheaper. Why? Because of the personal connection, knowledge of your history and a trusted face behind the counter.

Meanwhile, young people who live far from their hometown, those who relocate often, and those who travel a lot might favor the big name pharmacies they see on every city corner.

The big takeaway: It pays to shop around. If you’re operating by habit, you could easily be spending more than you need to.