Transferring Your Prescription May Be Bad For Your Health

No doubt you’ve seen those tempting promotions at pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and Target, promising a gift card, coupon–sometimes even cash–if you transfer your prescriptions to them. It seems like a no-brainer. Surely Walgreens can do as good a job at filling your prescriptions as CVS can. And although that $25 reward may sound like a pretty good deal to a cash-strapped consumer, it could actually be a bad deal for their health.

A study of pharmacists published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association shows that pharmacists perceive a reduction in the quality of care for patients transferring their prescriptions simply to reap those cash rewards. The pharmacists surveyed said patients that routinely use these incentives to save money might be at increased risk for inadequate drug screenings.

A busy pharmacist—and what pharmacist isn’t busy?—could misread a medication name. Or a customer transferring a prescription for a generic medication who doesn’t recognize the name on the label could chalk it up to the new pharmacy substituting a different generic manufacturer and not see that actually, the prescription was not filled correctly.

Last July Ohio’s state board of pharmacy voted to fine or revoke the licenses of pharmacies that offered promotions encouraging prescription transfers. They also put an end to pharmacies guaranteeing how quickly a prescription will be ready. The changes came after the state surveyed its 5,700 licensed pharmacists. They got 1,800 responses, all concerned about working conditions that put patients at risk. “Every time a pharmacist dispenses a prescription, they review the patient’s list of drugs to be sure there are no inconsistencies and that the new drug won’t interact with another,” Gary Schnable, executive director of the Oregon Pharmacy Board told The Oregonian newspaper. “Every time a consumer switches pharmacies, it breaks that chain.”

Not only could it compromise the safety of medications—because they are filled in a rush, misread or misunderstood–it’s also illegal. Anyone whose prescriptions are subsidized by government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare (for military families) can’t accept the gift card (or coupons or other monetary reward). In fact last April Walgreens agreed to pay $7.9 million in a settlement it reached after allegations by the Department of Justice that the drugstore chain gave $25 gift cards to those enrolled in government-run health programs.

Now Walgreens may have gone so far in the other direction, it’s misleading consumers about its new prescription transfer program. A consumer in Massachusetts describing his experience on the consumer review site, owned by market research firm Opinion Corp., said he switched six prescriptions from CVS to Walgreens—with the expectation of six $25 gift cards—and was told he didn’t qualify because he was enrolled in a government program. “I have Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island,” he wrote, “this is NOT a government program! However, Walgreens says it falls within the restrictions. How? If Blue Cross Blue Shield falls within this program, most plans will.” He also wasn’t told he didn’t qualify until after transferring the prescriptions.

If you still want to take advantage of prescription transfer programs, how can you make the most of them? Read the fine print, say consumer spending experts. If there is paperwork involved or lengthy checkout lines, it might not be worth the wait. Pick a chain store with locations near your home—within walking distance is ideal. Check the hours of the new pharmacy. Many bigger chains are open all night, but their in-store pharmacy may not run on that extended schedule. And keep in mind that a $25 gift card may be a very attractive incentive—but it’s a one-time reward. Each refill will have to be done at that new pharmacy, which may not be as efficient or careful as your old one.

By: Beth Fields