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.
No. Brand-name medications are not better, safer or more effective than their generic alternative because they're virtually the same.
To gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic drugs are required to 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. And by the second and third year it can drop 70 to 90 percent.
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 health care industry and the public.
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 20 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 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.
You should also know that 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 a more information, Community Catalyst, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization provides a list on their website of the top 50 brand-name drugs and the dates they should become available as generics.
You can also find out if a brand-name drug has a generic alternative by simply 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 pharmacy in the U.S. 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 Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.