Pharmacies and pharmacists are an integral part of the health care system. They are responsible for dispensing lifesaving medicine and often serve as a critical resource for patients who have questions or concerns regarding their treatment. Many also administer vaccinations and make recommendations regarding over-the-counter medications including vitamins and supplements.

Despite the added resource your local pharmacy/pharmacist provides, there are several concerning issues regarding the relationship between pharmacies and health care providers — some of which are significantly affecting patients via the rising cost of their prescriptions.

During an era when health care costs have been on a steady and rapid increase, and patients are finding it more difficult to afford reasonably priced health insurance, monetary savings are more imperative than ever. Recently, I received a call from a patient informing me that he had filled a prescription for a “generic” cholesterol medication and was charged $575 dollars for a 90-day supply. I was surprised by this information and decided to conduct my own research on the cost of the medication. I was amazed to find that a competing pharmacy offered the exact medication for only $41 dollars for the same 90-day supply. When I informed my patient, he returned to the original pharmacy and inquired why he was charged such an exorbitant amount. The pharmacy tech merely responded that that was the store’s price for the prescription.

What was even more troubling however was the fact that the same pharmacy could have charged him $200 dollars for the same prescription (a savings of $375), if he had simply printed a coupon or obtained a prescription drug savings card for the medication. Like my patient, many consumers are unaware that discounts and coupons are available for many prescription medications and, as in this case, many pharmacists/pharmacy techs fail to bring this savings option to customers’ attention. As a cost-conscious physician and consumer, I was extremely frustrated that the pharmacy did not have the courtesy to inform my patient that there was a coupon available for his medication. If it is happening to my patients, I am certain that it is happening to patients across the country.

Fortunately, with the recent upgrade in the computerized medical electronic health records systems, health care providers are now able to both view the cheapest prices for each medication and print out cost saving coupons. It is disturbing when I offer these coupons to my patients and find that they are surprised and upset to learn that they had been paying much higher prices than they would have if they had utilized this cost-saving option. With over 4 billion prescriptions filled in the United States each year, a savings of only a single dollar on each prescription could change the landscape of health care costs significantly. An important question to ask is why are the pharmacies not informing patients that these discounts and saving coupons exist?

Several pharmacist colleagues I have spoken with blame this miscommunication and oversight on being overworked and understaffed. Regrettably, others say it is simply a way for the pharmacies to increase revenue. One pharmacist revealed that costs are regulated by a “secret society” involved in mandating which pharmacies or prescription mail-order company consumers must use depending on their medical insurance.

So what is the solution? To start, it is imperative that health care providers educate their patients on medication costs and options on how to save money. Furthermore, pharmacies need to be more forthcoming to make certain that patients are paying the lowest amount possible for their medications. One such option is the GoodRx program, which offers significant discounts on almost all medications. These are generally honored at many of the large stores throughout the country and can be obtained via the internet or by visiting your physician’s office for a savings information card. However, they cannot be used with state or federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Now that physicians have computer systems which list medication prices and the lowest priced options available, we are better equipped to advise our patients as to the most cost effective way of filling their prescriptions. Also, should your insurance plan specifically mandate where you are required to fill prescriptions, do not let this restriction completely influence your decision. Indeed, in some cases paying cash is actually cheaper than utilizing your insurance plan. It pays to do some research to get the best price. Also, be sure to ask your physician for help and advice. Together, we can all reduce the outrageous costs of these medications.

Dr. Michael Schwartz is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and is affiliated with Soundview Medical Associates with a private practice in Darien. For comments or questions, visit his website at drmichaelbschwartz.com.