PORTLAND, Ore.— A KGW investigation found consumers can save a lot of money on prescription drugs by just shopping around.

We compared prices at pharmacies in the same town and found a cash price difference of $558 for three commonly prescribed drugs.

“It’s really just extraordinary how much of a difference it can make to shop around,” said Jesse Ellis O’Brien of the consumer advocacy group OSPIRG.

The highest overall pricing was at Walgreens, where the three drugs added up to $584.97. That was more than 10 times the total price Costco quoted us, $42.28 for the same three drugs.

Cash price comparison for Actos, Lipitor and Plavix at Walgreens and Costco
Cash price comparison for Actos, Lipitor and Plavix at Walgreens and Costco

The lowest price was at McCann’s Medical, an independent drug store which quoted us $26.59.

Cash price comparison for Actos, Lipitor and Plavix at Walgreens and McCann's Medical
Cash price comparison for Actos, Lipitor and Plavix at Walgreens and McCann's Medical

“A lot of consumers assume that since the drug is the same drug, it would cost more or less the same everywhere. That’s really not the case. It can vary wildly even within a single zip code or neighborhood,” explained O’Brien.

For our test, KGW focused on 10 different pharmacies in the Tigard-area, including national retailers, grocery stores and independent pharmacies. The drug stores were all located within a roughly two-mile radius.

We called those pharmacies seeking a quote for their “cash price” for a one-month supply of three commonly prescribed drugs. We always asked for the same amount of pills and same dosage. The drugs included the generic version of Actos, for diabetes; Lipitor, for high cholesterol; and Plavix, a blood thinner.

Our investigation found prices quoted for the same drug varied widely. Walgreens quoted $150.99 for the generic of Lipitor compared with $127.49 at a nearby Rite Aid, $17.39 at Bi-Mart, $13.13 at Costco and $9.35 at McCann’s Medical.

Cash price comparisons for Lipitor
Cash price comparisons for Lipitor

Consumer advocates say even if you have insurance you should compare prices, although many people do not.

“I just go to one place usually,” said Stephanie Standing, while holding her young child outside a local pharmacy.

A Consumer Reports secret-shopper investigation in December had similar findings. Consumer Reports called more than 150 drug stores in six major U.S. metro areas. Consumer Reports found consumers may be better off paying cash instead of using insurance. The survey also reinforced the importance of asking for the lowest possible price for a drug.

Similar to the Consumer Reports, the KGW investigation found independent pharmacies had some of the lowest drug prices.

“I think consumers need to shop for pricing,” said Mat McCann, owner of McCann’s Medical which has three locations in the Portland-metro area.

McCann said his family-owned pharmacy recently changed its business model to focus on cash prices, attracting customers who pay entirely out of pocket.

“Even though there aren’t many independents, I’d strongly suggest they give us a chance to compete because we can,” said McCann.

Prices can vary greatly between drug stores because contracts between pharmacy benefit managers, companies that broker deals between insurers and drug manufacturers, and pharmacies differ from one retailer to the next.

When KGW called CVS pharmacy, an employee warned us that the cash price quote for the three drugs we inquired about would be expensive. In fact, CVS had the second-highest overall pricing. The CVS employee encouraged us to look for savings from online services like GoodRx.com. The site offers coupons.

A spokesperson for Walgreens, which had the highest pricing, explained only a small percentage of Walgreens’ customers actually pay cash prices.

“More than 97 percent of prescriptions filled at Walgreens are paid for using some form of insurance coverage or a savings program such as our Prescription Savings Club,” Walgreens spokesperson Scott Goldberg wrote in an email to KGW.

Walgreens offers discounts off the cash price of brand-name and generic medications through its Prescription Savings Club (PSC). PSC is not medical insurance. Customers must sign up and pay a membership fee, $20 individual or $35 family per year.

According to Walgreens, the cash price for the generic of Lipitor dropped from $150.99 to $64.99 by applying the PSC discount.

Consumer Reports offered several other strategies to save on prescription drugs.

Customers should ask, “What is the lowest possible price for this drug?” This is the lowest price a pharmacy can offer without going through your insurance. It could be less than your co-pay, explained Consumer Reports.

“One of the few nice things about the prescription drug market is that they will actually tell you the price if you ask in advance,” said O’Brien, the consumer advocate with OSPIRG.

Consider shopping for drugs at buying clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. You don’t need to be a member and our investigation found Costco had some of the lowest prices.

Consumers should look at online pharmacies. Consumer Reports found HealthWarehouse.com had the lowest prices in its secret shopper survey.

Shopping around is important, especially if you are among the 28 million Americans who don’t have health insurance and have to pay drug costs on your own. But experts say, even if you have insurance, it can be worth your time and effort to compare drug prices from one store to the next.