Dear Savvy Senior: Are brand-name medications better than generic, and if not, why is there such a price difference? Also, how can I find out which medicines are available in generic form. —Leery Senior
Dear Leery: No. Brand-name medications aren’t better, safer or more effective than their generic alternative; they’re virtually the same.
To gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generic drugs must have the same active ingredient, strength, dosage form and route of administration as their brand-name counterpart. The generic manufacturer must also demonstrate that people absorb the drug at the same rate.
The only difference between a brand-name drug and its generic is the name (generics are usually called by their chemical name), shape and color of the drug (U.S. trademark laws don’t allow generics to look exactly like the their brand-name counterparts) and price.
Generic drugs are often 10 to 30 percent cheaper when they first become available, but by the end of the first year the price can drop in half. By the second and third year, the price can drop 70 to 90 percent.
Generic drugs are so much cheaper because their manufacturers don’t have the hefty startup costs that the drug’s original creators do. When a pharmaceutical company creates a new drug, it spends millions of dollars on the research, development and clinical testing phase. If the drug gets FDA approval, the company must spend even more money to market the drug to the health care industry and the public.
The total cost can reach the hundreds of millions by the time the drug is in consumers’ hands.
To recoup their investment, the brand-name drug makers charge a premium price. These companies get 20-year patent protection, which means that no other company can make or sell the drug during that period of time.
After those 20 years pass, 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 drives the price down. Today, nearly 8 in 10 prescriptions filled in the United States are for generic, which saves U.S. consumers around $3 billion every week.
In 2014 and 2015, patents on a wide variety of popular brand-name drugs will expire and become available in generic, including Celebrex, Copaxone, Actonel, Nexium, Exforge, Cymbalta, Lunesta, Avodart, Abilify, Evista, Maxalt, Maxalt MPT, Micardis, Micardis HCT, Reneagel, Twynata and Xeloda.
For more information, Community Catalyst, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, provides an online list of the top 50 brand-name drugs and the dates they should become available as generics. Visit communitycatalyst.org, and type “drugs going generic 2014-2015” in their search bar to find it.
You can also find out if a brand-name drug has a generic alternative by asking your doctor or pharmacist. Or, visit goodrx.com, a Web tool that provides prices on brand-name drugs and their generic alternatives (if available) at virtually every U.S. pharmacy so you can find the best deals in your area.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC’s “Today “and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.