To aid consumers in comparing prescription drug costs, many states have launched Web sites to publish drug prices offered by local retail pharmacies. The current push to make retail pharmacy prices accessible to consumers is part of a much broader movement to increase price transparency throughout the health care system. Efforts to encourage price-based shopping for hospital and physician services have encountered widespread concerns, both on grounds that prices for complex services are difficult to measure and compare accurately and that quality varies substantially across providers.
Experts agree that prescription drugs are much easier to shop for than other, more complex health services. However, extensive gaps in available price information—the result of relying on Medicaid data—seriously hamper the effectiveness of state drug price-comparison Web sites, according to a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).
An alternative approach requiring pharmacies to submit price lists to the states would improve the usefulness of price information, but pharmacies typically oppose such a mandate. Another limitation of most state Web sites is that price information is restricted to local pharmacies, when online pharmacies, both U.S. and foreign, often sell prescription drugs at substantially lower prices. To further enhance consumer shopping tools, states might consider expanding the types of information provided, including online pharmacy comparison tools, lists of deeply discounted generic drugs offered by discount retailers, and lists of local pharmacies offering price matches.