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Factors To Consider When Comparing Various Places To Purchase Prescription Drugs


These days you can purchase prescription drugs through a variety of sources. For example:

  • A local pharmacy (independent or part of a chain)
  • Online
  • Through an 800 number
  • Through a Buyers Club

Price is not the only reason to decide where or how to purchase prescription drugs. (To learn how to find the lowest price, click here.)

To help you make an educated decision about where to purchase your drugs, following in alphabetical order are a batch of factors to consider:

  • Comfort level
    • Are you comfortable discussing your symptoms and objectives with the pharmacist?
    • If you are considering a local pharmacy, is there an area set aside for you to speak privately with the pharmacist if you want to?
  • Compliance
    • If you have difficulty refilling your prescriptions on a timely basis, can the pharmacy help assure that you don't run out of any of your medications? For example, can it set-up a regular date to remind you when each of your prescriptions need to be refilled? Can the pharmacy automatically send you a refill? Internet and mail order pharmacies can do this as a matter of course. Perhaps local pharmacies can as well -- particularly if faced with the prospect of losing your business.
  • Confidentiality. If you don't want people to know you are about your health history or condition:
    • Local Pharmacy or Buyers Club:
      • Can you trust their employees not to tell other people your business?
      • Can people see you ordering or picking up a prescription?
    • Internet or Mail Order: Does their packaging indicate that the contents are sent from a pharmacy -- or that medications are inside? If so, can the company ship your order in plain packaging? (NOTE: If it is not the company's norm to use plain packaging, include a reminder about plain packaging each time you refill the drug.)
  • Convenience: How convenient is it for you to purchase your drugs? The corner drug store may not be the most convenient way for you to purchase drugs. Consider such sources as the internet or stores you may be visiting for other reasons, such as big box stores which have pharmacies.
  • Cost (beyond price)
    • To determine the real cost of purchasing your drugs, include the following:
      • The price of the drug, including tax if any
      • Charges for shipping and handling.
      • If you need drugs in a hurry, and are considering an online or mail order company, what are the charges for rapid delivery?
      • Membership fees, if any.
      • The visit to a doctor or other health care provider to give the prescription. (To learn how to save money to obtain a prescription, click here.
      • The cost of involved in monitoring your reaction to the drug, such as doctor visits and tests, and the cost of getting to and from those visits/tests.
      • The amount of time it takes you to go to the doctor and/or the lab, and how much pay you may lose because of that time. 
    • The following websites compare the prices of drugs in different internet pharmacies:
      • offsite link is a website that compares prescription drug prices among internet providers and provides ratings for internet drug sellers, both in the US and Canada.
      • offsite link searches the major online pharmacies for the best deals on prescription and over-the-counter medications.
    • For a chart to help you compare prices, see How To Compare Prices -- A Chart.
    • NOTE: If your insurance requires a co-payment when you purchase drugs, ask whether the pharmacy will waive the requirements. Let the person with whom you speak know about your health situation and the costs you have to bear because of it. Ask if the person has the authority to waive the co-payment. If not, ask to speak with a supervisor.
  • Drug Interactions
    • Does the facility have a computer that checks your drugs (including the drugs you don't purchase from that pharmacy) for negative interactions?
    • If a pharmacy you use doesn't have such a system, be sure at least one pharmacy you use has an up-to-date record of all of your prescriptions.
  • Emergency Access
    • How do you obtain necessary drugs in an emergency? If you use a local pharmacy, what if it's closed?
  • Generic Drugs
    • Does the pharmacy stock generic drugs? Once a patent expires, a drug often becomes available from more than one source and the price falls. Generic drugs are usually sold at substantially lower prices than their brand-name equivalent.
    • If your doctor prescribes a brand name, ask your pharmacist if there is a generic equivalent that is less expensive. There is a small risk that variations in the fillers or other inactive ingredients in the generic drug may alter the way the active ingredients work in your body. Consult with your pharmacist about this. If a question remains, call your doctor.
  • Insurance -- Does The Pharmacy Accept Yours?
    • Does the pharmacy accept your drug insurance plan or government drug assistance program? Either ask the pharmacy or call your insurance company to find out which pharmacies are part of its network.
    • If a pharmacist says that a particular drug is not covered by your insurance, consider the following:
      • Ask him or her to contact the insurer to find out why. There may be an error or you may be able to appeal the decision. For instance, there may be a denial because the prescribed use is "off label" (not part of the original use approved by the FDA when it approved the drug for use in the U.S.). Medicare, for instance, covers off label uses if they are mentioned in certain compendia. 
      • Is the drug available under a Prescription Assistance Program (PAP) from the manufacturer?
      • If you have Original Medicare, check to see whether the drug could be covered under Medicare Part A or B.
  • Is the pharmacy in the U.S.?
    • If you have any problem with a company outside the U.S. you will have nowhere to turn for assistance. 
    • Standards for manufacturing and storage of prescription medications vary country by country.
    •  While it is illegal to import drugs, the FDA generally allows individuals to import small amounts of drugs for personal use and hasn't clamped down on Internet shipments.
    • For additional information about purchasing drugs outside the U.S., click here
  • No prescription or you have run out and prescription has not yet been renewed?
    • If you run out of a drug and the doctor is not available to renew it: Will the pharmacy advance you a supply for a few days until you can get hold of the doctor?
    • If the pharmacy doesn't require a prescription at all: Does the pharmacy permit you to purchase drugs that normally require a prescription without one or without requiring a physical exam? A "virtual exam" by an "e-doctor" and "e-pharmacist" is not the same as a physical exam by a doctor, and can be hazardous to your health. If the pharmacy sells drugs without a prescription, don't be surprised if the only thing you get is a decrease in your bank account and no drug. You may not be able to collect any money even if you can locate the pharmacy's physical location because you've participated in an illegal activity. (For other red flags to watch for with internet pharmacies, click here.)
  • Pharmacist. Pharmacists are one of the most trusted members of health care teams. They generally have at least as much information about drugs as your doctor has, and probably have more time to share that information with you. Pharmacists also can act as a line of defense against negative drug interactions. Consider:
    • License: Pharmacists are licensed by each state. Can you see, or is the pharmacy willing to send you, a copy of the pharmacist's license?
    • Education: Does the pharmacist have a level of education with which you're comfortable? The levels of education, from the most to the least educated pharmacists are: 
      • Doctor of Pharmacy Degree.
      • Pharmacists with a Bachelor of Science degree.
      • Pharmacy Technicians.
      • For your information, the People's Medical Society believes the type of degree is not critical to good care.
    • Computer: Does the pharmacist have a computer that can:
      • Print out information about each drug you are consider.
      • Keep a list of your medications to check for negative interactions?
    • Comfort level: Are you comfortable with the pharmacist?
    • Confidentiality: As noted above, will the pharmacist keep your information confidential?
  • Refills
    • Will the pharmacy contact your doctor for you if new prescriptions are needed to continue your drug supply?
    • As noted above, will the pharmacy advance you a few days supply while you await receipt of a renewal prescription?
    • Does it have the refill policy you want?
    • If it is a local pharmacy, can you get refills at other locations?
  • Reputation
    • Is the pharmacy reputable? There have been reported incidences of pharmacies that substitute ingredients, or that store drugs improperly, or that purchase drugs from companies in countries without strict manufacturing, storing or shipping requirements, or that repackage drugs to indicate they are manufactured in a country other than the true country of origin.
    • You can find out if a particular pharmacy is licensed by the state in which it is located and/or has had any complaints lodged against it by contacting the pharmacy board of your state and the board of the state in which the pharmacy is located. State pharmacy boards can be located online at: offsite link.
    • For pharmacies with a presence on the internet, look for the VIPPS seal from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. VIPPS stands for Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites. VIPPA lists licensed pharmacies in North America, Australia and South Africa. While VIPPS is a voluntary certification program, it requires members to maintain fairly rigid standards. Members must:
      • Have licensed pharmacists on call.
      • Protect patient confidentiality.
      • Follow industry standards for the safe storage and shipping of medicines.
      • Maintain all state licenses in good standing.
      • Permit their operations to be inspected by VIPPS members.
      • Agree to display the VIPPS seal and to be listed on the VIPPS website.
    • To find out if the online pharmacy you are considering is certified by VIPPS, look for the VIPPS seal or go to offsite link, call 847.698.6227, or look . Click on the seal for verification.
    • If the internet pharmacy does not have VIPPS Accreditation: While some reputable pharmacies such as AARP and Costco are not VIPPS members, as a general rule, it is best to steer clear of any internet pharmacy which does not have VIPPS accreditation. However, if you want to use one:
      • Be sure the pharmacy uses encryption technology to protect your credit card and insurance information, as well as your personal health information. Be sure to also check the company's privacy policy regarding personal information.
      • Check to see if the pharmacy gives some type of access to a registered pharmacist. A reputable pharmacy will provide e-mail and/or phone access to a pharmacist who would be available to answer any questions you may have.
    • Avoid pharmacies and internet sites that do not identify themselves or do not provide a contact U.S. phone number and address in the event of a problem. You can learn the identify of the owners of a site at offsite link.
  • Shipping
    • If you are considering an on line or mail order pharmacy, take note of the standard shipping policy -- both in terms of the amount of time before your order will ship, and when you can expect to receive it.
    • Standard delivery usually takes 5-10 days while even "overnight" orders can take 2-3 days to arrive.
    • Find out what the procedure is in the event that a shipment doesn't reach you.
    • NOTE: Check to learn about storage requirements. For instance, some drugs such as insulin need to be refrigerated or lose their effectivness. Other drugs should not be exposed to extreme heat or extreme cold. If you are concerned about the manner of shipping, contact the supplier.
  • Supply
    • Does the pharmacy stock the drugs you need or do you have to wait for the drug to arrive?
  • Travel (if you)
    • If you travel frequently either for business or pleasure, can arrangements be made to deliver your drugs to another location or to deliver your drugs on an alternate date? Is there an extra charge for this service?

If you have a question about whether an internet site is legitimate, look for red flags such as no requirement for a bona-fide prescription.

NOTE: For information about living with drugs, including storing and disposing of them properly, click here

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