25 March 2009

Internet Startup In Troy Finds Best Consumer Drug Prices

Originally Posted in The Detroit News

A Troy-based startup has turned surfing the Web for discount prescriptions into a new business that helps budget-conscious consumers better locate deals in their neighborhoods.

Medtipster.com allows users to enter their ZIP code and a prescription, and within seconds lists pharmacies nearby selling the medication at a discount -- and the price.

"We came to the realization that there are many $4 drug programs out there and Wal-Mart got a lot of the hoopla when they introduced them," said Bruce Liebowitz, Medtipster's acting chief operating officer.

Liebowitz saw a need to put all that information together on a single site.

"We decided to start a site that would allow people to maneuver their way through the information," said Liebowitz, a pharmacy industry veteran who used to own a pharmacy benefit management company, 4D Pharmacy Management Systems in Troy. Another pharmacy benefit manager also is a major investor in the Web site.

Medtipster launched a beta version of the site in February and hopes to go live with the final version within the next month and reach consumers nationwide.

Right now, the company gathers its pricing information by scouring chain drugstore ads for the latest deals and posting them to its Web site. Ultimately, Medtipster plans to charge pharmacies a monthly fee to list pricing information on the site, Liebowitz said.

He acknowledges that one of the drawbacks to the beta version of the site is that there aren't many independent pharmacies included.

The company, Liebowitz said, is trying to change that and hopes it can give independent drugstores better exposure for marketing their discount drugs through the Web site.

The concept, however, isn't a new one.

Michigan's Department of Community Health offers a similar site called "Rx Price Finder," which allows users to type in a drug name and ZIP code, and pull up pricing information for nearby pharmacies.

The state's Web site is more inclusive, listing independent pharmacies alongside chain establishments. It compiles its information by tracking Medicaid prescription prices reported to the state's Medicaid program.

At the same time, the prices aren't updated daily at Rx Price Finder and some listing can be up to a month old, a disclaimer on the Web site warns.

Leibowitz said Medtipster offers a more user-friendly interface and has other features that make it more of an interactive hub for medical information. It features a live chat tool which allows users to instant message questions to a pharmacist and receive questions in real time. And the drug prices on the Web site go beyond Michigan to include pharmacies nationwide.

Medtipster also hopes to release a mobile-version of its Web site shortly.

Having an informed consumer does have its benefits, said Larry Wagenknecht, CEO of the Lansing-based Michigan Pharmacists Association. But after reviewing the site's test version, he had some concerns, namely that it doesn't include many independent pharmacies and that he'd like to see it disclose upfront where it's gathering its information.

"If you're not including all the information of all the pharmacies out there, I question the value of the site," Wagenknecht said.

He also worries the site focuses too heavily on drug pricing and not enough on promoting the role of the pharmacist. The association advocates that patients stick with one pharmacy or pharmacists to ensure that their medical information is kept in one spot.

"It is not a safe situation running around from pharmacy to pharmacy to find the cheapest price," Wagenknecht said, adding that it limits a pharmacist's ability to track patient prescriptions and monitor for potential drug conflicts.

Liebowitz, however, said the site doesn't advocate "pharmacy hopping." Rather, it strives to educate consumers on their options, so they can make an intelligent decision about where to buy discount drugs. And in a declining economy, those savings could help patients better comply with taking their medications, Liebowitz said.

"There is a hierarchy of problems to consider," he said. "The first one is that people can't afford their medications and they're choosing between food and drugs."

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