Consumers save on pet medicines by shopping around

Teresa Frost had not one but two cats with chronic illnesses, and the prescription costs were adding up.

Hopey needed kidney medicine that cost $30 at the veterinarian's office every 10 days, but Frost found a seller online who only wanted $7.25, including shipping. When she asked for copies of the prescription, though, she got a reluctant response.

"It was a little bit sticky with the vet," the Arbutus resident said. "They acted like it was something they wouldn't normally do."

It might not be common practice, but it's required. In Maryland, veterinarians who offer to sell medicine to pet owners must provide written prescriptions when asked. But a proposed federal law would compel vets to give their clients written prescriptions, even if they're not requested.

The "Fairness to Pet Owners" Act, which has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Health, was modeled after the law that requires patients to receive copies of their contact lens prescriptions.

Despite pervasive advertising promoting toll-free numbers and Internet sites that sell pet medications, nearly two thirds of dog and cat owners still get pet medicines from the veterinarian, according to a national survey conducted last year by Consumer Reports. And the markup for drugs dispensed by vets starts at 100 percent and can reach as high as 800 or 1,000 percent, according to consumer advocates.

A representative for a national veterinarians' group said patients are always welcome to shop around.

"We're not really certain where there's a need," Dr. Ashley S. Morgan, a former veterinarian who is assistant director of government relations for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said of the bill. "Clients already know they can go elsewhere," she said.

At one point, the vet's office was the only place that would fill a pet prescription, she said. But now advertising on national television suggests Internet sites as alternatives, which she said has increased awareness of those options.

If enacted, the bill would require vets to hand over the written prescription and an explanation of the legislation, she said. Morgan said. It also requires vets to verify prescriptions for pharmacies, even if they are not accredited, and prohibits them from asking customers to sign liability waivers if they shop elsewhere.

"Our concern is that it is placing a lot of regulatory and administrative burden on veterinary practices," she said.

Morgan said that the bill has been promoted as a way to lower the cost of pet care. She acknowledged that it may cost veterinarians more to stock pharmaceuticals than it does a company that serves more customers. However, veterinarians who do rely on prescription drug revenues may decide to raise the cost of other services or lay off staff if more clients go elsewhere, she said.

Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports magazine, which offered tips for controlling the cost of pet prescriptions in a recent issue, said the federal bill sounded like a good idea.

"The problem is that people don't know to ask for them," he said of pet prescriptions. "I think requiring it is a small, extra five seconds of paperwork that is well worth it for the consumer."

Consumers may need to purchase drugs from their vets in emergency situations, when the pet needs to start the medicine right away. But for chronic conditions, they should definitely check out online pet pharmaceutical websites, he said.

According to a national survey conducted by Consumer Reports last year, only 6 percent of dog and cat owners shopped for drugs online, and 64 percent still picked them up at the veterinarian's office.

"I think people are certainly conditioned to think, 'I'm going to get them from the vet,' and that's their first mistake," Blyskal said.

Pet owners can also save money by taking their prescriptions to local drugstores, he said. "A lot of drugs used for pets were originally developed for humans," Blyskal said. "What may be different is the dosage. A 150-pound person is going to have a different dosage than a 5-pound pet."

But the pharmacist may suggest splitting pills or crushing them to get to the right dose, he said.

And in some situations, consumers may be able to enroll their pets in family prescription drug discount plans offered by stores such as Walgreens, he said.

Frost said the federal law would help people like her. She didn't know that Maryland required vets to give pet owners their prescriptions. She continued to buy bottles of insulin from the vet for Tres, her diabetic cat, which cost $90 for a three-month supply.

But she shopped online for Hopey's meds after learning about the price disparities on an Internet forum for people with cats with chronic renal failure. Both cats have died, although she now has two others.

Frost said the experience did not prompt her to leave her vet, whom she loves and still entrusts with the care of her pets.

"It's not like I ever felt like they wouldn't give me the scrip," she said. "It took a little bit of pushing, but I guess they knew that they had to."

But it did make her angry. "In what other scenario would we be willing to pay a markup like that?" Frost asked.