Does Costco Pharmacy Have the Least Expensive Prices and No Membership Requirement?
A long-circulating Facebook post (archived here) claims that Costco pharmacy prices are always lower than other pharmacies, adding that Costco membership is not required to fill a prescription:
In what appears to be Facebook commentary added to a Tumblr thread, a top portion of text reads:
I filled two prescriptions with CVS (both generics) — $192. I called Walmart — $190. I took my prescriptions back from CVS and went to Costco — $22. No insurance. Please remember: you do NOT have to be a Costco member to use their pharmacy (if I wasn’t a member, I would have paid $27).
The post appeared to claim that Costco is the least expensive option for all prescriptions, and one need not be a member to use the pharmacy. Of the two primary claims, the easiest to examine was whether Costco allowed non-members to use its pharmacy. According to Costco, that second claim is true, but only sometimes:
[Question] I’m not a Costco member and I have purchased prescriptions at Costco’s Pharmacy before, why do I have to join Costco now?
[Answer] Costco’s pharmacies are open to non-members where required by state law. The Costco Member Prescription Program is a value added benefit of a Costco membership. However, you do not have to become a Costco member or join CMPP to continue buying prescriptions at the pharmacy.
Among the many websites offering advice on how to make use of Costco without a membership, the advice was frequently repeated — often without the important detail that the claim was only true in some states. We were unable to locate a list of which states mandate Costco pharmacies serve members and non-members alike, but that portion of the claim was only half true.
The rest of the claim, that Costco’s prices are cheaper than any other pharmacy, also seems to be sometimes true, but not always. In December 2017, NBC News reported on the findings of Consumer Reports secret shoppers across several pharmacies:
In a secret-shopper investigation, Consumer Reports called drugstores in six major U.S. metro areas to gather prices for common drugs: generic versions of Actos, for diabetes; Celebrex, for pain; Cymbalta, for depression; Lipitor, for high cholesterol; and the blood thinner Plavix.
One example of the stark pricing differences: In Dallas, Consumer Reports’ secret shoppers received a quote of $220 for a month’s supply of generic Cymbalta at Walgreens, $174 at a supermarket pharmacy, $40 at Costco, and $23 at an independent drugstore.
In the Consumer Reports survey, Costco had the best prices for a brick-and-mortar store, while the online mail-order pharmacy Healthwarehouse.com had the lowest overall pricing. The report found the two highest-priced national retailers were CVS Health and K-Mart for the common medications they checked. Independent pharmacies varied drastically; sometimes they were the cheapest option, other times the most expensive.
In the example quoted above, Costco was the second cheapest for one of the medications — but not the cheapest. While Costco’s $40 price came in under another chain pharmacy and a supermarket, it was still $17 more expensive than an independent drugstore. And in those overall rankings, Costco wasn’t the absolute least expensive option.
An April 2019 Consumer Reports investigation advised “shopping around” for individual prescriptions, based on variables wherein some prescriptions were costlier at chains that were overall less expensive. Using a selection of five commonly prescribed medications, the outlet determined that cost outcomes varied too much to recommend one pharmacy chain over any other.
Pricing is not even necessarily consistent between different locations at the same chains:
The range in prices [secret shoppers] found was stunning. The five-drug “marketbasket” cost just $66 at the online pharmacy HealthWarehouse.com but $105 at Costco. The two highest-priced national retailers—CVS and Rite Aid—had prices closer to $900 for the five drugs.
When we asked CVS and Rite Aid about their comparatively higher prices, representatives for each explained that there are in-store programs that can help lower prices for people who don’t have insurance.
But when we took new prescriptions to CVS and Rite Aid to verify what we were told, we got mixed results. Staff members at some pharmacies used store coupons and other vouchers to offer our shoppers much lower prices; others provided modest discounts or none at all.
Consumer Reports illustrated how the same prescription sometimes rang up differently in different locations of the same national chain:
For example, a Rite Aid store near our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., was able to get the price of atorvastatin, the generic version of Lipitor, down to just $18 from $300 through a combination of in-store and external discount programs.
But at another Rite Aid, we were told the cost could only be lowered to $127.
And while one CVS used discounts to lower our shopper’s cost by about $86, another said that we had to pay the store’s full retail price of $135.
In their rankings based on pricing trends, Costco ranked second behind HealthWarehouse.com in total cost for all five prescriptions together, at $105 versus $66. But independent drugstores averaged just $2 higher at $107; considerations such as a personal relationship with a pharmacist and stronger customer service might be a consideration for some comparison shoppers. Another aspect the outlet observed was that “the lowest retail prices in pharmacies can sometimes be a better deal than using insurance, especially in the case of drugs that aren’t covered well.”
GoodRx.com, which was mentioned in the original post, was cited as a way to save time in comparison shopping:
Start by trying GoodRx, Blink Health, or WeRx.org. They will ask for the name of the drug, the dose, the number of pills, and where you live. Then they will show what you can expect to pay at various pharmacies if you use their discount coupons or vouchers, which you can print out or download to your phone to show a pharmacist.
The Facebook post is partially accurate. Its “reblog to save a life” commentary, however, highlights the fact that incomplete or inaccurate information contained by posts like this could lead to delays or other mishaps in filling prescriptions.
Costco did allow non-members to fill pharmacies — but only in states where that was mandated by law. It did often came in as one of the least expensive options. But it was neither the cheapest overall in a 2018 secret shopper effort, nor was it consistently the cheapest. Although Costco clocked in at second place to an online pharmacy in that review, independent pharmacies were virtually identical in total costs. Advice given in the post could be useful, but entire states’ populations were not served by its advice at all.