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Dear Savvy Senior
Are generic medications as effective as brand-name drugs, and if so, why are they so much cheaper? Also, how can I find out which medicines are available in generic form.
Generic drugs are just as effective and safe as their brand-name counterparts because they’re virtually the same – except for the price of course. Here’s what you should know.
Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic drugs contain the same active ingredients, dosage and quality as their brand-name counterparts. The only differences between them are the name (generic drugs are usually called by their chemical names), shape and color of the drug (U.S. trademark laws don’t allow generics to look exactly like the brand-name drugs), and price (which is between 30 and 90 percent less).
The reason generic drugs are so much cheaper is because their manufacturers don’t have the hefty start-up costs that the original creators of the drug do. When a pharmaceutical company creates a new drug, it spends millions of dollars on the research, development and clinical testing phase. Then, if it gets FDA approval, it has to turn around and spend even more money to market the drug to the public, pharmacies, health insurance companies and doctor’s offices. The total cost can rise into the hundreds of millions by the time the drug is in the hands of consumers.
In an effort to recoup their investment, the brand-name drug makers charge a premium price, and are given a 20 year patent protection, which means that no other company can make or sell the drug during that period of time.
After those twenty years are up, however, other companies can apply to the FDA to sell generic versions. But because generic manufacturers don’t have the same research, development and marketing costs, they can sell their product much cheaper. Also, once generic drugs are approved, there’s greater competition, which keeps the price down. Today, more than half of all prescriptions are filled with generic drugs, and according to the Congressional Budget Office, generic drugs save U.S. consumers an estimated $10 billion a year.
Since not all brand-name drugs have generic alternatives, the easiest way to find them is to ask your doctor or pharmacist, or check the FDA online drug catalog at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/drugsatfda. Better yet visit www.rxaminer.com, a great Web site that lets you easily search for brand-name drugs and their generic alternatives, if they exist. If they don’t, it provides other low-cost alternative medicine options, if available.
Every year, a number of brand-name drugs lose their protective patent and go generic. Among those to watch for in 2009 include the migraine drug Imitrex (sumatriptan), ADHD drug Adderall XR (amphetamine), antiseizure drugs Topamax (topiramate) and Lamictal (lamotrigene), allergy drug Clarinex (desloratadine), the herpes antiviral drug Valtrex (valacyclovir), GERD drugs Prevacid (lansoprazole) and Aciphex (rabeprazole), and enlarged prostrate drug Flomax (tamsulosin).
Many chains like Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Kmart, CVS, Walgreens and Safeway offer great deals on many generic drugs. Wal-Mart for example charges only $4 for a 30-day supply and $10 for a 90-day supply with no eligibility restrictions. You can also find great generic deals online at sites like Rx Outreach (www.rxoutreach.com; 800-769-3880) and Xubex Pharmaceutical (www.xubex.com; 866-699-8239).
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.
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