GENERIC DRUGS: Lost in the Glitz of Brand Name Drugs?
As the rising cost of prescription drugs has become the "hot topic" during the presidential campaign, "largely overlooked" in the debate are "dowdy" generic medications that could help consumers save money, the Los Angeles Times reports. The cost of prescription medications, which has been growing "four times faster than the rate of inflation," could be cut by more than $11 billion per year if generic drug use increased only 10%, according to a recent study. In 1999, the average cost of generic drugs was $18.45 compared to $61.33 for a comparable brand name drug, reports the Times, which also includes a list of the cost of some popular brand name drugs and their generic counterparts. However, the Times notes that both consumers and physicians have been slow to embrace generics instead of brand-name medications, for a variety of reasons, including perceived inferiority. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Generic Pharmaceutical Association, although 70% of all prescription drugs have a generic counterpart, use of generics has stagnated at around 40% of total U.S. prescriptions since 1993. The public's fear that generics are inferior "stems from consumers' impression that if something costs less, it can't be as good," according to Gary Buehler, acting director of the FDA's Office of Generic Drugs. But all generic drugs undergo the same testing as brand name medications to prove they are equally safe and effective. Physicians also are "brand-happy," the Times reports, as they receive most of their information about medications from pharmaceutical companies' salespeople. To reinforce the "glitter" of brand-name drugs, pharmaceutical companies are turning to "savvy" public marketing campaigns. Such direct-to-consumer ads have garnered billions for the industry; in 1999, the top 25 most-advertised medications accounted for 40% of the increase in retail drug spending. U.S. patent laws also contribute to the cost of prescription medications, allowing pharmaceutical companies 20-year patents to recoup some of the millions spent on development of the product.
Turning the Corner on Generics
Some insurers are offering financial incentives for consumers to use cheaper drugs, such as lower copays for generic medications. In addition, the Washington, D.C.-based National Consumer League has launched an educational campaign touting the benefits of generic drugs. The group addresses some questions about generic medications on its Web site, www.nclnet.org. Lawmakers are also entering the generic drug debate: Last month, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the Greater Access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals Act ( S 3051), which would speed the FDA's generic drug approval process. Further, the FTC announced last week that it is investigating brand name and generic drug manufactures to determine whether the companies conspired to keep less-costly generic drugs off the market (Marsa, Los Angeles Times, 10/16).