What's All This Then?

commentary on the passing parade

Agree? Disagree? Tell me

My Other Blog

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I don’t often use this blog site to air personal gripes that would be of little interest to the casual reader - but since I have a personal gripe that speaks to the business practices of a major American retailer, I think it qualifies as a commentary on the "passing parade." It will also kill two birds with one stone in a manner of speaking, since I plan to call these comments to the attention of that retailer’s CEO.

Some time ago, the local drug store that I had patronized for close to a half a century, abruptly closed it’s doors - and told me, in a form letter - that my prescription records had been transferred to a nearby Walgreens. Since there were no independent pharmacies anywhere close to my house, I had little choice but to accept this sad situation and to use Walgreens for my future prescription needs.

From the beginning it was not a pleasant experience. The simple act of picking up a prescription that was ready for pick up, often resulted in an annoying overlong wait - even for someone to acknowledge my presence at the pick up counter.

We had insurance coverage for prescriptions - but on about one out of every five or six visits to pick up a prescription, I would find it priced as though we had NO insurance and one of the pharmacy staff would have to do a computer search to find me or my wife and to try to figure out why the prescription had been wrongly priced.

Then one day, I picked up a prescription which definitely seemed wrongly priced, even though the price was our normal co-pay for generic drugs. I wasn’t able to get an appropriate explanation from anyone at the store, so I thought I would try to get it from someone at Walgreens headquarters and on September 25, 2005, sent the following message via their web site:
I'm not sure if this is an issue you can deal with, but I'll start here and go wherever else I need to go to get an answer. Today I picked up a prescription for my wife at a local store. Four, that's Four - Diazepam 10 mg tablets. The charge was $9.99, our normal co-pay for generics. It struck me however, that this exceeded the price for four tablets, but I was told this was the Walgreens price with or without a co-payment. Out of curiosity, I asked for the price for Thirty, that's Thirty tablets without any insurance co-payment. $13.99!!!

Four dollars more than the price for FOUR tablets.

Multiply this sort of pricing by some thousands of patients around the country and it begins to look like Walgreens is engaged in some price GOUGING. Perhaps there's a legitimate explanation and if so I would appreciate receiving it.

Their was an automatic acknowledgment on 9/26/05

Dear Valued Customer:

Thank you for writing to our Customer Care Center . A Customer Care representative will research your comments or concerns, and reply as soon as possible.

And the next day, September 27, 2005, there was this e-mail response .

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for writing to our Customer Care Center.
This message is in response to your e-mail regarding your copay.

Your plan has a quantity limit. 1 to 30 tablets will be the same copay of $10.00 no matter if you received 1 tablet or 30 tablets. That is the way your plan has set up it's copay structure. It may be cheaper if you did not run it through your insurance and paid out of pocket.

This is not a price gouging situation. Your plan has different tiers of copay, Generic, Preferred and Non Preferred. If you were to get a 90 day supply of the same medication through mail order you would pay $11.99. So if we multiply the retail price of $13.99 X 3 = $41.97 verse running it through your insurance you would save $29.98.

Some medication will look like your paying more, but depending on the cost of medication. I hope that this explanation will help clarify the way your copay works.

We thank you for your loyalty to Walgreens. If you have any further questions or need additional information regarding our web site, please reply to this e-mail, or contact us at the toll-free number below.

We look forward to serving your pharmacy-related healthcare needs.

I responded on September 27, 2005

I cannot believe this so called "explanation:" for what is CLEARLY a case of overcharging a customer. I am not an idiot. I understand that the co-payment is the same for any quantity of pills - but that is only the situation when the co-payment is an issue. For years before my prescriptions were transferred to Walgreens, they were filled at Endler’s Pharmacy. Occasionally, a prescription would amount to less than our lowest co-payment and whenever this occurred, the pharmacist would tell me and I would of COURSE be charged the actual retail price. The pharmacy would NEVER run such a prescription through insurance. If they did they would be OVERCHARGING me. The concept is ludicrous.

I do not accept this "explanation." If you insist that this is appropriate business practice and that it is up to the customer - who may not be familiar with normal retail prices - to make sure that prescriptions costing less than the lowest insurance co-pay NOT be handled as an insurance purchase rather then the pharmacy automatically charging the lower price, then I will ask a third party to look into the way you handle these matters.
I waited patiently for an answer and after thirteen days became impatient and referred the matter via US Mail to the Chairman and CEO of Walgreens as follows:

David W. Bernauer
Chairman and CEO
Walgreen Co.
200 Wilmot Road
Deerfield, IL 60015 October 10, 2005

Dear Mr. Bernauer,

The enclosed exchange of e-mails is self explanatory.

Since I have heard nothing further from mywhi.com, either in the way of an explanation or an assurance that the problem has been researched and this price gouging practice eliminated nationwide, I am calling it to your attention and asking for that assurance from you.

Absent some appropriate response, I will, as indicated in my e-mail message of 9/27/05, ask someone in the business of investigating these kinds of issues to look into it on behalf of all Walgreens pharmacy customers.


Jeff Smith
This brought a response by way of a letter of apology from a Walgreens executive and a refund check in the amount of $9.99, to which I responded by e-mail as follows:
We're always happy to get checks in the mail, particularly unexpected checks - but if you read our letter of October 10 and the e-mail attachments, you will see that we were not asking for a refund but an assurance from Walgreens that you do not have a policy of charging insured customers an amount equal to their insurance co-payment for a prescription whose retail price is less than the insurance co-payment - and that if you do have such a policy that you will cancel it, since it is of course price gouging, whether intended or not.

We would appreciate hearing that you are addressing this issue. It's a matter of principle and not one that we can consider settled in return for a $9.99 check.

Jeff & Sharon Smith
To which we received the following reply via e-mail:

Mr. and Mrs. Smith,

I can assure you that we are addressing this issue. I'm sure you can appreciate that we have to get the message out to a lot of stores and a lot of employees and do whatever we can to ensure compliance and follow through.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

We hope that you will allow us to continue to fulfill all of your family's prescription needs while we strive to resolve this issue.

Thank you.

That sounded like a reasonable response from someone who understood that the so called policy described in their e-mail of September 27, 2005 was ludicrous if not downright illegal.

We continued to use the local Walgreens store for our occasional prescription needs. (For sustaining drugs, our plan offered a by mail service - coincidentally, also managed by the Walgreen company). The local service stayed about the same. Frequent long waits just to pick up a prescription. The occasionally wrongly priced prescription - as though we had no insurance, necessitating a computer search to find us - and of course an even longer wait. And impersonal service. Through all the times that we came in to drop off or pick up a prescription, no one ever seemed to recognize or remember us. I appreciate the fact that like many Walgreens branches, it was a busy store with a large number of pharmacy customers - but you would think that people in this highly personal aspect of retail service would be trained to try to remember and relate to customers.

Then last month, a number of medications were prescribed for my wife to take in preparation for a test procedure. When I picked them up, I didn’t check the price of each item, but when I got home and set them out on my dining room table, one item seemed very strangely priced. It was for a single pill and it was priced at $5 - our reduced co-pay this year for generic drugs - with the notation that "your insurance has saved you $6.99." An indication that this one pill retailed for $11.99!!

On April 17, 2006, I sent the following e-mail to the Walgreens executive who has assured me last October that they would "get the message out" to all their stores about this ridiculous practice, attaching a copy of the $5 for one pill receipt:
I would think that from the end of October of last year to the end of March this year would be more than enough time to inform your stores of what any grade school kid could figure out. When a doctor writes a prescription for ONE pill, the cost to the patient should be either the actual retail price - or the insurance co-payment, whichever is the smaller amount.

Now your store in Skokie, Illinois has done it again and frankly it will take more than an apologetic e-mail to explain this away. If this is representative of what is going on across the country, thousands are being screwed out of untold amounts and someone has to put a stop to it!!
I sat down and waited for what I was sure would be an immediate, apologetic e-mail - despite my telling him that it would take more than an apology to explain this second case of rip-off. But I also expected to be told that the word had gone out to all their stores to stop this ridiculous practice of automatically charging insured patients their insurance co-pay for a prescription that retails for less than the co-pay amount!! And that he - the Walgreens executive - would personally talk to the people in the Skokie store to make sure that such a thing would never happen again.

Fortunately, I decided not to hold my breath until I received a response - or these comments would never have seen the light of day.

I waited a reasonable amount of time. I heard nothing - and so I did what I said I would do in my e-mail message of September 27, 2005 and in my October 10, 2005 letter to Walgreens CEO David W. Bernauer - I asked someone in the business of investigating these kinds of issues to look into it on behalf of all Walgreens pharmacy customers.

The "someone" that I asked was the Attorney General of the State of Illinois - and in a letter dated May 10, 2006, her office advised me that the matter will be reviewed and they would let me know what "assistance" they might be able to provide. Their wording

I’m waiting to hear what they think they can do. All I want them to do is to ask Walgreens to make damned sure that this practice of charging insured customers their insurance co-payment for a prescription that retails for less than the co-payment amount, be stopped immediately at each and every one of their stores.

It won’t be a matter that will affect me personally. Over this past week-end, I went into my local Walgreens to pick up a prescription for my wife. We’d received one of those automated phone calls that says "your prescription is ready for pick up." It was wrongly priced. Insurance hadn’t been applied. I said so. The pharmacist, one who I’d dealt with on many an occasion, asked if my wife had ever had a prescription filled there before. It was a scene that should have been videotaped. It would have been perfect for use in anger management classes as an example of the kind of anger that’s not only justified but obligatory as a means of communicating with the species humanus sans cerebellum!!

We will no longer be filling our prescriptions at this or any other Walgreens. Unfortunately, the only local option is another pharmacy chain and dealing with them may be another adventure. But at least their local store is closer to my house and in this age of the retail behemoth - I guess one has to be grateful for small mercies.