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Americans spending more on prescription drugs

Monday - 9/10/2012, 5:00am  ET

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Americans are spending more on prescription drugs, despite the increasing availability of generics.

A survey by the healthcare company IMS Health shows a 14 percent increase in prescription drug costs at retail pharmacies in the last five years.

Consumer Reports Editor Lisa Gill isn't surprised by the data. She says prices of brand-name drugs are going up, and most people don't have a clue what their prescriptions cost until checking out at the pharmacy. By then, it may be too late to do much about it.

Gill says the place to start dealing with high prescription drug prices is in the doctor's office. She says doctors don't usually initiate a conversation on drug costs, so patients have to be up front and share their concerns.

The doctor's office is the time to ask whether a generic medication is available, or at least an equivalent brand-name drug that costs less, says Gill.

Almost 80 percent of all drugs have a generic alternative, and almost every pharmacy chain and big box store offers some kind of generic discount program -- some offering 30-day supplies of medication for as little as $4.

"These are incredible savings, and we can see from a lot of our analysis that people don't take advantage of these programs enough," Gill says.

If a name-brand drug is the only option, it doesn't hurt to shop around for the lowest price. Gill says the savings can be substantial.

Consumer Reports recently checked out the cost of a one-month supply of Plavix at pharmacies around the country and found prices ranging from a high of just over $200, to a low of about $20, says Gill.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was some of the lowest prices were found not at discount stores, but at local independent pharmacies. They may not have a big discount on generics, but they are sometimes willing to negotiate price on brand- name drugs

Gill warns to expect some of the highest prices - no matter where a person shops - on popular brand name prescriptions in the five years before they lose patent protection. Lipitor went up 87 percent during that time frame and the bone- building drug Boniva went up 100 percent.

And, while Consumer Reports urges patients to check out prices at various pharmacies, Gill says there is something to be said for relying on just one. She says that way all prescription records are in the same place, and a pharmacist can better check for reactions and potential problems.

Read the full report from IMS Health on prescription drug spending.

Check out Consumer Reports' findings on prescription drug costs.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)