Monday Medical: Generic medications can be cheaper, effective

Medications can be just as helpful as brand-name drugs

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For more information on medications, talk to your pharmacist or physician, call Yampa Valley Medical Center’s Community Health Resource Center at 870-1173, or visit www.medlineplus.gov.

The high cost of prescription drugs can create a financial hardship for many people, particularly the elderly and the chronically ill. As the price of prescription drugs continues to increase, generic medications offer a cost-effective alternative.

What exactly is a generic drug? Yampa Valley Medical Center Pharmacy Director Wes Hunter explains:

“Generic drugs are copies of brand-name drugs,” he said. “Pharmaceutical companies hold patent rights on drugs, and generic drugs cannot copy the exact formula until this patent expires.”

If generic drugs are equal to brand-name drugs, then why do they cost so much less?

“Generic drugs are less expensive to produce because manufacturers don’t have the research, development, advertising and marketing costs that the developer of a new drug has,” Hunter said. “This allows the manufacturer to sell their product for a lot less.

“Pharmaceutical companies maintain patent rights for 17 years from the date that they first file for a patent on a drug they are developing,” Hunter said. “This helps pay for the cost of bringing a new drug onto the market. … It may take up to 10 years to get approval, so the company may have only five to 10 years to recover that investment.”

Why do generic drugs look different, and does that indicate a difference in quality?

Hunter said U.S. trademark laws do not allow a generic drug to look exactly like the brand-name drug. However, a generic drug must duplicate the active ingredient. Colors, flavors and certain other inactive ingredients may be different, but they have nothing to do with effectiveness.

All generic drugs are reviewed and approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“The FDA requires generic drugs to have the same active ingredients, quality, strength, purity and stability as brand-name drugs,” Hunter said. “They also must have the same dosage form — tablet, liquid or injection.”

Generic drugs do not take longer to work in the body. They are required to deliver the same amount of active ingredient in the same amount of time as brand-name drugs.

“The FDA monitors drug reactions and has found no difference in rates of side-effects or adverse drug reactions between generic and brand-name drugs,” Hunter said.

“Brand-name and generic drugs are required to meet the same manufacturing standards. The FDA does not permit drugs to be made in substandard facilities.”

That’s the good news. But not all drugs have generic equivalents.

“In recent years, some pharmaceutical companies have secured additional patent rights by introducing extended-release versions of medications,” Hunter said. “These versions may be more convenient or last longer, but it is interesting that they weren’t needed until the patent was about to expire.”

Your doctor or pharmacist can tell you whether there is a generic version of the medication you are taking. And it is worthwhile discussing this topic. A generic drug can be priced from 25 to 90 percent below the brand-name equivalent.

It’s no wonder that many health insurance plans have created incentives for their members to switch to generic drugs by lowering co-pay amounts.

“If you are having trouble affording your medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if a generic is available,” Hunter said. “If the answer is no, sometimes there is a similar drug available in generic form, and your doctor can determine if that lower-priced drug can deliver the same health benefit.”

Hunter explained that drugs are categorized in classes. Within a certain class of drugs, there may be a generic that is similar, even if it is not an exact duplicate.

“For example, Diovan (valsartan) is often prescribed for high blood pressure, and it is not available generically,” Hunter said. “But Cozaar (losartan) is another drug in the same class that acts in the same way, and it became available in a generic form this month.”

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at christine.mckelvie@yvmc.org.

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