Zurik: Some prescription discount cards prove to be no bargain

Zurik: Some prescription discount cards prove to be no bargain
Gerald Michel examines documents during an interview.
Gerald Michel examines documents during an interview.

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - When it comes to prescription drug pricing, customers need to be aware. Sometimes what you're told Is far from the truth.

Over the past 10 months, we've uncovered finding after finding of insurance or drug companies taking advantage of sick people. Now we uncover more evidence, showing what you're being told sometimes makes no sense.

"It's like Alice in Wonderland," our source tells us. "It's absolutely nonsensical. The corruption, the graft, it just keeps getting bigger and more bold."

Bold, he says, when companies use a word easily definable to us all to possibly mislead many people who buy prescription drugs at their local pharmacy.

"Discount in the real world means... What the normal price would be, you'd pay a less price," says our pharmacy source, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about potential repercussions.

As for what 'discount' means in the prescription drug world, he tells us, "It means you're going to get ripped off."

Another local pharmacist sent us an email that shows us the cost for a medication. A customer came to the pharmacy with one of those discount cards.

You've probably seen the commercials or seen them on the Internet: They're free, and many are advertised as easy to get, easy to use and easy to save. Consumers with or without insurance may use them to try to find a cheaper alternative.

But in this example, the discount card price cost the customer $317.  Paying without the card, simply with cash, saved the customer $90; the medication cost $227.

We contacted the company that offers that prescription card. They didn't respond to our question of why the cost was higher using this card.The national community pharmacists association says there are some instances where the discount card provides a cheaper price.

"So they're not discounting," says pharmacist Gerald Michel. "They're taking money from the people who think they're getting discounts."

Michel runs two pharmacies in south Louisiana.  He's also a councilman in Terrebonne Parish.

"They are taking advantage of people," he says, "and worse yet they're taking advantage of elderly people and people who are sick. They're taking advantage of the most vulnerable people."

Michel's pharmacy recently filled a prescription for duloxetine, which treats depression and anxiety.

"I do know that duloxetine is cheap," Michel tells us. " I mean, it's ridiculous."

Using one of these discount cards, a customer would have paid $191.  Michel's pharmacy filled it without using the card for less than $20; they would have made $162 off this transaction.

"But we would never do a discount card without comparing it to our price and giving the person what's best for them.," Michel says. "They call them discount card and so, by habit, we do. But it's not a discount card."

In one case, the discount card provider tried to overcharge the customer and limit how much the pharmacist could keep, only allowing Michel's pharmacy to collect $1.50 for filling the prescription.

Michel says he's not making any money from the cards.

"You can look at that and see the fee," Michel says. "What is it, a dollar and a half? A dollar and a half on this one... A dollar and 50 cents. They want us to fill a prescription for $1.50 when it costs our pharmacists, who are probably making in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year... It costs them I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars to get through school."

"The discount cards are not all they're cracked up to be in most cases," says Doug Hoey, who leads the National Community Pharmacists Association.

The cards we're talking about aren't the discount cards by drug manufacturers, but cards issued by so-called discount companies, in privately-funded programs.

One of the cards is offered by the Louisiana Prescription Assistance Program.  A prescription cost $66 with the card, $17 without it.

The National Community Pharmacists Association says there are some instances where the discount card provides a cheaper price. But Hoey warns, "We find that most of those are not necessarily a good deal for the patient."

Our anonymous pharmacist says these discount card companies have contracts with drug manufacturers. And while it may be a money loss for the consumer, it is not for the card company.

"That's what it implies," he says. "[They have] negotiated a price on your behalf, [but] they negotiated the price on how much kickback they can get from the drug manufacturer."

For some people, a story like this may seem impossible, hard to believe.

"They actually benefit from the fact that, when you start talking to people about this, it becomes so absurd that they think you're an idiot, that they think you're the mad hatter," our source says.

But three people tied to pharmacies tell us this happens every day, and the federal government continues to do nothing about companies incorrectly defining a word that has a fairly easy definition.

"You would think between the federal government, the FTC, the FCC, that when people are blatantly advertising things that are lies, you would think they would step in.," the pharmacist says. "It should be illegal. It's definitely unethical, definitely not moral."

Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved.