Generic Drugs

Controlling Costs

Many health plans want consumers to take generic drugs because they are less expensive. The co-payment is typically higher for the brand name. "I can get a name-brand drug, but I have to pay the difference, and it's a very big difference," says Jim Guire, a retired medic and firefighter who lives in Gloucester, Virginia. He takes four drugs a day for a heart condition that left him disabled at age 35.

Generic drugs generally cost about 30 to 60 percent less than their brand-name versions. Put another way, the average generic prescription is about $45 cheaper than its brand-name counterpart. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that generic versions sold at retail pharmacies save consumers about $10 billion a year. And the savings should continue. The Wall Street Journal reports that patent protection for 40 brand-name drugs will end by the year 2002, which means their generics can be sold.

Every state allows pharmacists to fill a prescription with an FDA-approved generic drug if one is available. The exception is a doctor's stipulation on the script that the patient use the brand-name medication.

Therapeutic Drug Substitution

Consumers need to be aware of the difference between generic and therapeutic substitution, says Duane Kirking, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacy at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy. Therapeutic substitution means substituting the prescribed drug with a cheaper drug in the same class or family but with a different chemical makeup. Some managed care plans promote therapeutic substitution to pharmacists and doctors as a way to control costs, he says. But your doctor is the only person who can allow that change.

Continued on page 3:  When the Brand Is Best