Shop for a new car or snow blower and you can compare prices with a few clicks. But try shopping for the medications that keep you alive and the process is not so easy. In fact, it can be downright deadly.
That’s the only conclusion from the latest depressing news courtesy of the New York Public Interest Research Group into the widely varying prices of prescription drugs in the state and the difficulty people have in navigating their way through a confusing landscape.
The group found, for example, that the price for Advair Diskus, an inhaler for those with asthma or chronic bronchitis, varied from a low of $207.75 to a high of $467.75 at pharmacies in Manhattan. It reported that Nexium, a popular prescription heartburn medication, cost $189 at one Syracuse area pharmacy and $349 at another.
The wide range of prices for those drugs will sound high to those who have health insurance. But even in a state that has tried to provide health care coverage in defiance of the federal government attempt to limit it, there are still more than one million New Yorkers without health insurance. Those on Medicare often pay full price because of built-in gaps in coverage, a feature known as the “doughnut hole.” The elderly and many who are unable to work often have chronic health problems requiring expensive medications.
They are the ones we so often hear about facing the choice among buying groceries, paying bills or buying medication, those who skip doses or cut pills in half to make prescriptions last longer.
Transparency, making information widely available in hopes that it will bring down prices and keep consumers informed, has not worked when it comes to medications. The state Health Department has a website where people can look at the costs of the drugs they need, comparing prices at nearby pharmacies. But the availability of this information has not had the desired effect and that should not be surprising.
People are not in the habit of shopping around for medications and drug companies are not in the habit of marketing based on cost. There is an understandable reluctance to seek bargains for something that your doctor has told you is necessary for your health, perhaps for your life. Nobody wants to take the risks that often come with a bargain even if the lower price is being charged for the same product.
NYPIRG had some modest recommendations to help people become better consumers. It proposed having the state make sure that the availability of these price comparisons is more obviously displayed at pharmacies and suggested changing the name of the website to something more memorable.
As far as they go, those are fine. But the real solution that would help all New Yorkers, especially those without health insurance, requires thinking bigger. There are legitimate proposals in the state Legislature for a single-payer system of health care in New York, one that would provide universal coverage at lower overall costs.
As candidates ask for your votes this fall, ask them what they are planning to do about this important issue should they get elected.