A new Consumer Reports survey of 43,739 readers about pharmacies they like best and least affirms that the top-rated walk-in stores are neighborhood independents, not giant chains such as Walgreens and CVS.
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Ninety-four percent of readers who shopped at independent drugstores were highly satisfied with their experiences. Included in this group are The Medicine Shoppe and Health Mart, independent-like chains that are individually owned and operated but have a common parent company. Independents made fewer errors, offered swifter service at the pharmacy counter, and were much more likely to have medications ready for pickup when promised than traditional chain, supermarket, or big-box-store pharmacies, our survey found.
People who filled their prescriptions at independent stores also praised the pharmacists’ accessibility and personal service, and encountered fewer delays and medication mix-ups than those who shopped elsewhere.
Here are your basic choices and some findings from our survey:
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Independents: Tops for care
Independents had been in decline for decades, though their numbers have held steady in recent years at about 23,000 stores. But rates for prescription-drug reimbursement from insurers continue to decline, which makes it tough for shops to stay in business. Independents get 93 percent of their sales from prescriptions; chain pharmacies, just 65 percent. (The rest comes from cosmetics, food, and other merchandise.)
At the same time, independents are facing competition from pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, which administer prescription plans and cut deals with drugmakers and pharmacies on behalf of large employers. PBMs offer their members incentives to use their mail-order pharmacies, and independents aren’t part of those networks. A few Medicare Part D plans are dangling incentives to clients to switch to mail-order fulfillment as well.
Because independents specialize in prescriptions, they can offer greater personal attention. “They have an intense interest and stake in ensuring that customer service is of the highest standard,” says Kevin Schweers, vice president of public affairs for the National Community Pharmacists Association. More than 90 percent of readers gave independents excellent or very good scores for pharmacists’ knowledge about drugs and other products, helpfulness and courtesy, speed and accuracy, and personal service. No other type of drugstore came close. Readers who shopped at independent stores were twice as likely as chain-drugstore shoppers to characterize their druggist as easy to talk to and able to give them a one-on-one consultation.
To support patient care, most independents also sell canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. Roughly three-quarters of them offer local delivery (usually free). Most also offer compounding, or custom-mixing of medicine, and will flavor kids’ medicine to make it tastier—services that other types of drugstores are starting to offer. One drawback: Their websites can be sparse.
Supermarkets: A lot to like
Together, the nation’s 9,000 or so supermarket pharmacies came in second to independents. Eighty-four percent of readers who bought drugs there were highly satisfied.
Supermarket pharmacies are appealing because you can shop while you wait for your medicine, and many provide frequent-shopper discounts, automatic refills, low-cost generics, free antibiotics, health screenings, immunizations, and more. Publix lets customers order online for in-store pickup; Safeway will mail your prescription; HyVee customers can get nutrition advice from registered dieticians; and Raley’s shoppers can critique their pharmacy experience on the store’s website. In Texas, H-E-B offers expectant mothers free prenatal vitamins.
Chains: Criticized but convenient
Forty-one percent of Americans buy their prescription medicine at traditional chains, more than at any other type of drugstore, yet readers were more critical of them than of other drugstore types.
The industry has shrunk to two titans, Walgreens and CVS, with more than 14,000 stores between them, according to a trade publication. Rite Aid is a distant third. Small regional chains, such as employee-owned Kinney Drug, with 91 pharmacies in upstate New York and Vermont, have many of the pluses of independents. Readers gave Kinney pharmacists high marks.
The convenience of big chains is undeniable. They accept a variety of insurance plans. Many are open 24 hours a day, have a drive-through window, and give you the option of in-store pickup or mail delivery (often free). You can also fill prescriptions at any of the chain’s locations (records are in a central database), helpful if you’re out of town.
The chains are getting better at having prescriptions ready when promised. Although 25 percent of chain shoppers in our 2002 survey said that at least one prescription wasn’t ready when promised in the previous year, only 15 percent in our new survey said that was a problem.
Chain websites tend to be comprehensive and cutting-edge, communicating offers through Twitter and Facebook. You can create a medical profile to help flag interactions, get alerts when your medicine is about to run out, have prescriptions refilled automatically, and print your prescription history. Walgreens has free iPhone and Android apps for refills and will send text alerts when prescriptions are ready. You’ll find details about drugs and supplements and be able to print coupons. You can also e-mail the pharmacist and sometimes have a live chat.
Mass merchants: The pick for cash customers
Since 2002, the percentage of readers who have prescriptions filled at big-box stores has jumped from 14 percent to 22 percent. Most who shopped at stores such as Kmart, Bi-Mart, and Sam’s Club cited low prescription prices as an important reason for shopping there.
Mass merchants continue to stress low price. Sam’s Club and Costco stores open their pharmacies to nonmembers. At Costco, members without prescription coverage can sign up for a free program for drug discounts. Sam’s Club members can get extra discounts if they opt for a pricier membership.
Customers can visit a Target in-store clinic for a physical exam or for diagnosis and treatment of minor illnesses and injuries for a fee of $59 to $69. And Kmart customers who are at least 50 years old and without prescription-drug coverage can enroll in the free Gold K program for up to 10 percent off branded drugs and up to 20 percent off generics that aren’t among those already discounted through another program.
But service lags. One in four mass-merchant shoppers complained of a long wait during at least one visit, and when the store was out of a drug, 33 percent of people waited two or more days for it. Walmart was among the lowest-rated stores overall and the only one judged worse than average in speed and accuracy and personalized service.
Online: Stick with verified sites
The Internet can be a source for cheap drugs, but be careful. “We still have big concerns about rogue sites,” says Ilisa Bernstein, a deputy director in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Roughly 36 million Americans have bought medications online without a valid prescription. In an international crackdown last year, the FDA contacted 294 suspect sites and corresponding Internet service providers and domain-name registries, urging that the services be shuttered. Most were suspended or otherwise no longer sold drugs, though within hours, some re-emerged under different names.
Make sure an unfamiliar site is licensed by your state’s Board of Pharmacy. (Search for, say, “California board of pharmacy,” and follow the links to verify that the site is legitimate.) The NABP has a voluntary online-pharmacy-accreditation program, Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites. A VIPPS seal is a good sign that a site complies with regulations and adheres to the best pharmacy practices. The NABP also has a list of sites that it does not recommend. Go to www.nabp.net/programs, then scroll down and click on “Buying Medicine Online” under Consumer Protection, then on “Not Recommended Sites.” LegitScript is another organization that verifies pharmacies doing business online as legitimate in accordance with NABP-recognized standards. A list of its accredited sites is available at www.legitscript.com.
This is an excerpt from “Best Drugstores” from the May issue of Consumer Reports.
Copyright © 2006-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.