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Saturday, May 1, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Online pharmacies beat out some prices under Medicare

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — The federal government this week announced discounts available to users of the planned Medicare drug cards. Despite promises of big savings for elderly and disabled Americans, Internet pharmacies still beat some of the cut-rate prices under the program.

The government promised savings of up to 25 percent on brand-name medications and 50 percent or more on generics. But the mail-order and Internet pharmacy, drugstore.com, offered lower prices than the discount cards on six of 10 widely prescribed medications surveyed Thursday by The Washington Post. And a British Columbia-based Internet pharmacy had better prices on five of six drugs that were sold.

Some patient-advocacy groups say the Medicare Web site is doing a disservice to seniors by not posting prices offered by major Internet and mail-order pharmacies. The site does provide information on drug-assistance programs run by state governments and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

"Anything that helps one person get a prescription filled is better than nothing," said Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, a New York-based senior consumer counseling group. "But at the end of the day the real benefit of these discount cards will be to get people to take stock and look at all of their options."

Hayes' organization lists more than a dozen options on its Web site (www.medicarerights.org).

With the rollout of the new program, seniors still will need to check prices carefully for the best deal. Take Celexa, a popular drug to treat depression. The price offered by a Medicare card available in the Washington, D. C., region was $73.03 for 30 tablets, according to data released Thursday on the Medicare Web site. The same prescription for these 20-milligram tablets could be filled by drugstore.com for $68.99, plus $1.49 for shipping.

And Internet-based Granville Pharmacy, of Vancouver, B.C., had a substantially lower price: $46.52. The Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that drugs purchased from outside the United States may not "conform with the manufacturing and quality assurance procedures mandated by U.S. laws and regulations." Some state governments have begun steering patients to Canadian pharmacies that state officials have inspected.

But the Medicare program had a remarkably better price for Nexium, a heartburn medication. One discount card offered a 30-day supply for $95.31, more than 20 percent less than the prices charged by drugstore.com ($120.99) and Costco.com ($125.47). Granville Pharmacy, however, sold a 28-capsule package for $66.68.

All told, 73 Medicare-endorsed discount cards will be offered by more than two dozen companies and organizations, including AARP. So far, 35 cards have submitted pricing data to Medicare. More prices will be posted on the Medicare Web site next week, and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Thursday he expects prices to drop further. Patients can price drugs on the Medicare Web site (www.medicare.gov) or request a quote by calling 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227).

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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