A LEADING pharmacy chain has vowed to review its prices after huge discrepancies emerged in the cost of prescription drugs.
Boots made the promise to consumers in a statement last night after an Irish Independent survey found significant price differences between different outlets for the same common drugs.
There is also a lack of transparency across the whole pharmacy sector because, unlike with most retail outlets, there is no requirement to display prices. This has sparked an investigation into the sector by the National Consumer Agency (NCA), which also wants to find out why private patients are charged so much more for drugs than the State.
Boots, which has 61 branches in the Republic, was found to be the most expensive in the survey.
For example, the cost of one prescription for painkillers, sleeping pills, blood pressure medication and anti-depressants worked out at almost €55 at Boots compared with between €40 and €46 in nearby pharmacies.
Consumers face yet another hurdle comparing prices, however, as some pharmacies include dispensing fees in their itemised prices; while others add them afterwards. This can mean it may be cheaper to buy all your items at once to avoid multiple dispensing charges -- but consumers won't discover this until after paying.
The NCA is examining what can be done to improve price transparency and cut costs.
It warned that prices charged to private patients "can be substantially higher than the equivalent unit prices levied for the same items under state reimbursed schemes".
The preliminary investigation showed that well-informed private patients, or those who enjoy a long-standing relationship with their pharmacist, often got a much better deal close to the cheaper state rates.
"Others, however, are being charged at levels considerably in excess of the equivalent Community Drug Scheme fee," it said.
Around 80pc of prescription drugs taken in Ireland are paid for by the State under various schemes such as the medical card scheme and long-term illness scheme.
Private patients not covered by other schemes must pay up to €120 a month at market rates for prescribed medicines, but anything over that is paid for by the State.
Our survey found that sleeping tablets sell at €3.72 under state schemes, compared with €7.84 to €9.98 if privately purchased -- though the state price already includes a 20pc retail mark-up.
Under state schemes, pharmacies also receive between €3.50 and €5 per item in dispensing fees.
The NCA said the fact itemised receipts were not commonplace made it difficult for private patients to discuss cheaper alternatives with their doctor.
Commenting on the survey, a Boots spokesman said: "Following this recent comparison carried out by the Irish Independent, we will review our prices again as we continue our commitment in offering the best price available to our customers."
The Irish Pharmacy Union rejected criticisms, however, saying that the Irish pharmacy market was highly competitive and that payments to pharmacists were down by 40pc since 2009. The HSE warned that members of the public should not be charged any more for drugs than the prices listed on its website.