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More Low-Cost Generics

The Wall Street Journal


The Wall Street Journal

More Low-Cost Generics

Generic drugs are like the understudies of the drug world; they wait in the wings while brand-name medicines get all the attention. But as competition among retailers drives down generic prices and the selection of these drugs becomes more plentiful, generics are getting a bigger role in many people's health-care spending.

The appeal, of course, is substantially lower cost. People can save 30% to 80% by switching from a brand-name drug to a generic version, says Edith Rosato, senior vice president of pharmacy affairs with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. With brand names costing an average of around $100 a month, a 50% savings would add up to $600 a year.

The Wal-Mart Effect

The savings could grow as competition among big-name retailers continues to escalate. Wal-Mart Stores last week expanded its program of offering $4 generics to 14 more states, including Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas. The $4 drug program was launched in Florida earlier this month and Wal-Mart says it will be available in most states by the end of the year.

Rival Target, citing a policy to be "price competitive" with Wal-Mart, pledged to match prices in the 13 of the 15 states where it also has stores.

Meanwhile, brand-name drugs that account for about $30 billion in annual sales are expected to lose patent protection over the course of this year and next, according to market researcher IMS Health.

Doug Long, head of industry relations at IMS Health, says some of the bigger names losing patent protection in coming months are Ambien, used to treat insomnia; Coreg, for heart failure; and Norvasc, a blood-pressure medication that was No. 10 among last year's top-selling drugs.

Already in 2006, Mr. Long says patents expired for allergy medicine Flonase, cholesterol drugs Pravachol and Zocor, antidepressant Zoloft and painkiller Mobic.

Among the people who stand to benefit most from the wave of new generics are the uninsured and those covered by the Medicare Part D drug benefit.

People in the standard Medicare drug plan lose coverage after annual spending reaches $2,250 and don't get it back until drug costs hit $3,600.

Health experts say one way to delay or avoid reaching the gap in coverage is to use generics whenever possible, since they bring down the total drug bill. Some more expensive Part D plans offer some coverage in that "doughnut hole," but typically only for generics.

The best way to learn about generic alternatives is to consult with a doctor or pharmacist, says Brooklyn, N.Y., geriatric care manager Marion Somers. Medical professionals tend to have the most current information and can ensure a patient's medications won't conflict. Dr. Somers says older people are often reluctant to ask for a cheaper alternative, but a few minutes of discussion can save patients big bucks.

Research Your Options

Among other resources, the FDA's Orange Book, available at fda.gov/cder/ob, is updated monthly and lists brand-name drugs and their generic equivalents. To find a drug by brand name, click on the link titled "Search by Proprietary Name." The FDA has approved a generic if the capital letters AB appear in the second column.

Consumer Reports also offers free information about generic drugs at crbestbuydrugs.com. The site lists drugs by category, such as menopause drugs or antidepressants, and names "best buys" for consumers. Price information may be a few months old, but the data can be a good starting point.

People who already have generic prescriptions can compare prices at a couple of sites. DestinationRx.com will search the prices of eight major online pharmacies, including Costco. PharmacyChecker.com offers a similar service that includes non-U.S. pharmacies.

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