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Vt. consumers can now click to compare drug prices

MONTPELIER -- Attorney General William Sorrell unveiled a new website yesterday where people can compare prices offered by Vermont pharmacies for prescription drugs.

The website allows consumers to click on their medication or medications, as well as their town or county, and pull down a list of prices offered for various drugs by pharmacies in their area .

Sorrell and Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill led reporters on a virtual tour of the website, showing that prices for many commonly prescribed drugs could vary by 30 percent or more in the same area.

In one instance, a comparison of prices for the asthma drug Albuterol, the office found that 17 doses of 9i0 micrograms each ranged from $12.41 to $41.72, depending on the pharmacy, a 238 percent difference.

"Give consumers good information, and they can make smart buying decisions," Sorrell said. "As the already high cost of drugs goes even higher, this comparison shopping tool should be a great help to price-conscious Vermonters."

Some pharmacists took a dim view of the website.

Earl Pease, who owns Lakeside Pharmacy in Burlington, called the website "an absolute waste of time." He pointed out a caveat Sorrell and Brill freely acknowledged: The prices, collected from pharmacies by the state office that administers Medicaid programs, are up to two months old before they are posted on the site.

Pease, chairman of the state Board of Pharmacy, said the "reasonable and customary" prices shared by pharmacies with state officials bear no resemblance either to the copayments most insured people pay when they pick up prescriptions or with the discounted payments public and private insurance systems make for the drugs.

Fewer than 5 percent of customers "pay the cash price; that's why I think the website is so futile," said Pease, who said he was speaking as a pharmacist, not on behalf of the Board of Pharmacy.

Woodstock pharmacist Jim Marmar, executive director of the Vermont Pharmacy Association, said he did not object to the website.

"I think in a 21st-century environment, people need information and they need as many sources as they can find that are reliable," Marmar said.

But he questioned why pharmacists had been singled out, rather than other health professionals. "Dentists would be a good choice," Marmar said. "And chiropractors."