FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - It’s a choice no one should have to make -- whether to refill a prescription or put food on the table.
But that’s the reality for countless Michigan families.
Even with company sponsored insurance and the Affordable Care Act, thousands of people are falling through the cracks.
Over the past six years, the average price of drugs prescribed to treat common conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and depression has more than doubled.
So we went to work to help those of you paying entirely too much for prescription drugs.
In an ABC12 investigation, we took an in-depth look at the cost of some of the most commonly prescribed medications and found out how much you pay often depends on your pharmacy and your zip code.
When Ann Childs left her full time job to care for her sick parents, she would lose her insurance.
“I was able to enroll in Obamacare when it came out, had that insurance the first year. Second year priced me out - it went up so much,” she says.
Even the affordable care act was more than she could afford. Eventually so were her prescriptions.
Ann was one of thousands of uninsured Michiganders who was falling through the cracks.
She says without her medications for depression and the nerve pain she suffered in an accident, every day was a struggle.
“There were days I just didn’t get out of bed. I was exhausted and my body didn’t do anything but stay in bed."
The Mt. Morris woman was left to pay as much as she could out of pocket.
For gabapentin, a prescription that treats neuropathic pain, that meant anywhere from $68 to $193 dollars a month according to michigandrugprices.com, a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website created to help those without coverage compare prices.
“It could be $60 at this pharmacy and $193 down the road,” she says.
That’s just one of five prescriptions Ann needs and she found herself choosing between taking her medications and paying for basic needs like food.
“A lot of people will stretch medications out,” says Cynthia Bolden-Howard. The pharmacist at Hamilton Community Health Network sees the struggles many people face first hand.
“Maybe every other month, maybe take half tablet. A lot of patients feel they don’t have to take blood pressure or diabetic medications everyday," she says.
Bolden-Howard has been a pharmacist for 35 years, many spent at big box store pharmacies, before becoming a pharmacist at Hamilton Community Health Network.
At Hamilton, their mission is providing care, no matter what a patient’s economic situation may be.
“We have a discounted scale for people who are uninsured,” says Hamilton CEO Clarence Pierce. “Most don’t qualify for Medicaid and don’t make enough for private insurance. So we do a sliding scale and can side down to 0 depending on income.”
It’s an option that could have a life saving impact.
Ann is far from alone
Almost 8 percent of Michigan is living without insurance. That’s almost 800 thousand people.
So, we wanted to help those without insurance do more with less.
Michigandrugprices.com tracks the latest cash prices for the uninsured in your neighborhood.
We decided to do the same. It’s shocking to see the difference, a pharmacy or zip code can make.
When we looked up Ann’s Mt Morris zip code and the latest Medicaid claims submitted for the antidepressant amitriptyline, there’s a stunning price gap.
Walmart offers the cheapest price at just $4.00. Rite Aid is a little more than double that at $9.99
But then the price jumps. At Walgreen, the same antidepressant is about $22.
Kroger sells it for $24.83.
And the price keeps climbing at some of the smaller pharmacies.
At Brothers Pharmacy and Town Center Pharmacy amitriptyline costs $63.
Rx Care Pharmacy rings it up for 88 dollars.
If you go to Discount Rx, the same bottle you could pick up a Walmart for $4 had a recent Medicaid claim for more than a hundred dollars more at $107.40.
Dr. Debra Furr-Holden says pharmacies often charge the most for drugs in the neighborhoods least able to afford them.
“There’s growing evidence we have tremendous disparities in pricing of drugs in communities. In that poorer and blacker communities tend to have higher drug prices," she says.
The epidemiologist is dedicated to finding solutions that will reduce health imbalances in the Flint community and is helping shine a light on them on the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.
“The system is broken," she says. "We regulate and control the pricing sale and distribution of liquor. Why should prescription drugs be any different?”
But, unbelievably, it is.
And there are plenty more examples of the price gap beyond the meds Ann takes.
Michigandrugprices.com shows substantial price gaps between different pharmacies throughout Mid-Michigan:
In Flint, according to michigandrugprices.com, the Kroger Pharmacy offers cholesterol treatment Lipitor for $5.84 a month.
The same prescription is more than $100 at Rite Aid and over $200 at Walgreen. The site shows smaller pharmacies like Rx Care Pharmacy have submitted claims to Medicaid for about $250.
Michigandrugprices.com shows the same price gaps in Saginaw depending on the pharmacy and location!
The inhaler albuterol costs about $11 at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers, but the cost shoots up to about $90 at Walgreen and the website shows it can cost you nearly $200 at smaller pharmacies like Medplex pharmacy.
In Bay City, MDHHS says the antiepileptic drug gabapentin is priced at $12.82 at Great Lake Bay Health Centers.
The same script will cost you more like $50 dollars at Meijer, $75 dollars at Rite Aide and has had Medicaid claims as high as $265 at Downs Pharmacy and $372 at Medwins Pharmacy.
We reached out to nearby pharmacies to ask why there is such a huge difference in cash prices between pharmacies.
Some of the bigger chains can afford to lure customers in with reduced prices for certain generics and higher prices for other drugs make up the difference.
“You would think Walgreen as a big business would have a better price vs a small independent," said Bolden-Howard. “They don’t have same buying power.”
Ann is grateful she found a pharmacist like Bolden-Howard and a community health center that puts her before her ability to pay.
“We go through it every time,” Ann says. “How are things? Do I need to adjust anything?”
She estimates she saves about 3 thousand dollars a year on her prescription drugs thanks to Hamilton Community Health Network.
Ann is now back to working part time and more importantly, back to herself.
The key take away in our ABC12 Investigation? It really pays to compare prices!
You can compare prices in your neighborhood by entering your zip code at michigandrugprices.com.
The website GoodRx.com also offers customers a chance to search current prices, free coupons and discounts.
So, it is best to call ahead to find the current price.
The MDHHS website also offers information about drug assistance programs and if you are without pharmacy coverage and qualify, you can even get your prescriptions free or at a reduced cost.
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