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NCA survey finds wide variations in drug pricing in pharmacies nationwide

The average percentage difference across a range of commonly prescribed drugs nationwide was 56 per cent, according to a survey by the National Consumer Agency .

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LARGE VARIATIONS IN the prices of common prescription medicines charged by pharmacies, , as well as differences in relation to pharmacies’ policies on dispensing fees, have been found as part of a nationwide survey by the National Consumer Agency.

The NCA published the results of a nationwide survey of 45 pharmacies, which found that the prices charged to private customers for 39 common prescription medicines varied widely. The products included in the survey were selected from a list of commonly prescribed medicines provided by the Health Service Executive (HSE).

The survey found that nationally the percentage differences in prices of individual prescription medicines ranged from 37 per cent to 199 per cent, with the average percentage difference across all products nationally being 56 per cent.

The survey found that the largest percentage variation in price for an individual product within a local area was for a drug commonly used to treat stomach ulcers, Losec Mups 20 Mg (28). The difference in price in Waterford was found to be 122 per cent, with prices ranging from €22.43 to €49.69.

The second highest percentage price variation within an area was also a product commonly prescribed for patients with stomach complaints, Zoton Fastab Tabs 30 Mg (28). In Dublin, prices ranged from €19.96 to €42.33, a difference of 112 per cent.

Across the 39 products surveyed in Dublin, the minimum price difference for any individual product was 34 per cent, with the average percentage price difference being 44 per cent, the survey revealed.

The average price difference across the 39 prescription medicines varied slightly in the local areas surveyed: the average difference in Galway was 30 per cent; in Cork and Limerick the average difference was 29 per cent; while the corresponding figure for Waterford was 27 per cent.

“Our survey shows that there are huge differences in the cost of individual prescription medicines in local areas,” Karen O’Leary, Chief Executive of the NCA, who noted that many private customers may not be aware of these price differentials.

We would urge consumers, especially those on long-term medication and who do not meet the criteria for the various State-funded drug schemes, to compare the costs of prescription medicines in their local area before choosing a pharmacy. Consumers can compare prices by simply visiting or phoning pharmacies and requesting that pharmacy’s price for the prescription required.

O’Leary said that during the course of the study some pharmacists had indicated that, in some circumstances, prices could be reduced. “For example, some pharmacies said they reduce the overall cost for their customers by not applying the dispensing fee, or applying just one dispensing fee on a number of prescribed products. We would advise consumers to speak to their pharmacist to see if these reductions are available, particularly if they are making regular purchases,” she advised.

Dispensing fees

The NCA also sought information in relation to pharmacies’ polices on dispensing fees and found that a range of different policies apply. Some pharmacies apply a standard dispensing fee, while others altered the fee in accordance with the price of prescription medicines. In a small number of instances, pharmacists do not charge a dispensing fee on certain products.

O’Leary said that more needed to be done to help customers compare the costs of prescription medicines and avail of price differentials. Due to the fact that a pharmacy’s dispensing fee policy may have a large bearing on the final price paid by consumers, the prominent display of the pharmacy’s policy would help improve price transparency and help to inform consumers, she noted.

“We have written today to the pharmacy regulator, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI), as we want to work with them to improve consumer access to price information in the sector. We are calling for the inclusion of a specific reference to the display of dispensing fee policies by pharmacists at their premises in the PSI Code of Conduct or other relevant guidelines,” O’Leary said.

All prices quoted refer to the price charged to a first time private customer for each of the specific medicines, purchased individually on prescription, with prices correct as of 6 February 2013.

The NCA said the study focused on specific branded medicines but noted that, given that much of the variation in prices was likely to be the result of dispensing fee policy and retail margin, savings should be found on generic products. It advised consumers to compare prices in their local area.

Read the NCA report in full here>

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