Free online tool helps consumers compare prescription drug prices

A leading private health care benefits company has developed a free online tool that helps consumers compare the price of prescription drugs at B.C. pharmacies.

On Monday, Pacific Blue Cross announced the launch of Pharmacy Compass, which can be accessed simply by going to No user identification or password is required – simply agree to the terms of reference, type in the drug’s name or identification number, dosage and pharmacy location.

In most cases, the Compass will reveal a list of pharmacy names, locations and per-pill prices for the drug, as well as dispensing fees. The site provides consumers with the price of a generic equivalent as well. Generic drugs listed with Pharmacare typically cost 35 per cent of brand-name drugs in B.C. New regulations will reduce the price of generic drugs to 25 per cent of the brand-name price on April 1, 2013, and to 20 per cent on April 1, 2014.

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The Compass is updated monthly and drug prices shown are calculated based on prescription claims submitted to Pacific Blue Cross over the previous three months.

Pacific Blue Cross cautions that price is only one detail to consider when selecting a pharmacy. Consumers also need to consider value-added services provided by a pharmacy, the convenience of the pharmacy’s location and its business hours.

A cursory look at the site for various drugs shows there is a wide range in prices charged for the same drug, as well as widely varying dispensing fees. For example, in the case of two of the top 10 drugs covered by Pacific Blue Cross in terms of the dollar volume of sales, the cost of Lipitor ranged from about $2.33 a pill to $2.62 in the Vancouver area. The cost of Crestor ranged from $1.84 to $2.19 a pill. Both are used to treat high cholesterol.

There are many reasons prices might vary, and cost is only one factor, said Leza Muir, senior vice-president of claims for Pacific Blue Cross. “If they are a pharmacy that has extended hours and therefore has to have a pharmacist on staff for a longer period of time than one that closes at 8 p.m., there is a different cost,” she pointed out. Also, some pharmacies offer disease-related clinics dealing, for example, with managing diabetes.

Prescription drugs account for about 70 per cent of the value of private health insurance claims, Pacific Blue Cross said in a news release. Canadians spent $26.1 billion on prescription drugs in 2010, including $4.6 billion out of pocket.

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Seventeen per cent of B.C. residents do not adhere to their prescriptions because of cost, a rate much higher than the national average of 9.6 per cent, the news release said.

“One of our goals in developing the tool is to make sure all British Columbians, whether you have drug coverage or not, have access to affordable health care,” said Muir. “Our whole aim with our pharmacy company is to lower the out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs for all consumers.”

She said there is no way of knowing how the tool will affect prices overall. Her company is finding that pharmacies charge, on average, a mark-up of 15 to 16 per cent on the manufacturer’s list price for top-volume drugs. What is important, she said, is that consumers have good information so they can make wise choices when purchasing prescription drugs or any other products.

The online service is limited in that it covers only drugs that are not injected. There is a new, growing genre of drugs known as biologics that are costly and made of living DNA cells rather than chemicals. Two of these drugs, Remicade and Humira – both used to treat rheumatoid arthritis – are in the Pacific Blue Cross’s top 10 list, not because they are widely prescribed but because they are costly. Neither will appear in the Compass.

The same is true of insulin, which is being more widely prescribed with rising rates of diabetes.

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The reason the Compass is restricted to pills is “we want to make it simple for consumers,” Muir said. Trying to deal with injectables in terms of dosages and price-per-dose can be more complicated.

Parkash Ragsdale, deputy CEO and director of professional services for the B.C. Pharmacy Association, said the Compass should be viewed as one of a number of tools in helping patients to make decisions.

“It is an electronic tool, so people have to learn how to use it,” she said, adding that sometimes patients won’t know the precise name of their medication or the dosage – both of which are required by the Compass – especially if it is being prescribed for the first time.

Pacific Blue Cross provides health, dental, life, disability and travel coverage to about 1.5 million British Columbians.