Let’s say you have a choice between two drugs to treat acid reflux. One is $200 per month. The other is $25. They have similar ingredients, the same effectiveness, and the same safety record. Which do you choose?
It seems like an easy answer, but many of us still choose the $200 brand-name drug over its $25 generic alternative. The brand name may be more familiar or what you are used to taking. Or you may not be convinced that the generic drug will have the same positive impact. But a generic alternative produces the same result as the brand name and, according to the Food and Drug Administration, is on average 80 to 85 percent less expensive.
When you switch from a brand name to a generic, the savings can add up quickly. The example that I used was a real one, comparing the price for a 30-day supply of Nexium®, an acid reflux medication, with omeprazole, an effective generic alternative in the same category of drugs as Nexium. If you take the generic for a year, that is a savings of over $2,000.
If you have a prescription drug plan, those savings will help control future increases in premium costs as well as reduce your out-of-pocket costs. For example, a co-payment for a typical generic drug is $8, while a typical co-payment for a brand-name drug is $42. That’s an average savings of more than $400 in co-payments annually for just one prescription.
At a time when we are all concerned about the affordability of healthcare and the prolonged recession is putting additional financial strain on Rhode Islanders, using generics can make a big difference. At Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI), prescription drugs account for about 20 percent of total claims cost, and the high cost of brand-name prescriptions ultimately comes out of our customers’ pockets in the form of increased premiums, co-payments, or out-of-pocket costs. And the cost of brand-name drugs shows no sign of slowing down. According to the Government Accounting Office, prescription drug costs rose faster than any other healthcare expense last year.
As a doctor, I’ve had patients ask me why a generic that is just as safe and effective would cost so much less than the brand name. The reason is that generic manufacturers don’t need to spend the same amount of money as brand-name manufacturers on developing the drug or in advertising and promotion. (That’s why most of us have never heard of the names of generic medications.) However, generic drug manufacturers are held to the same quality standards – many generics are even made in the same facilities as their brand-name counterparts. At BCBSRI, well over 70 percent of drugs taken by our members are generics, a clear sign that most folks in Rhode Island now appreciate their value and safety.
It’s important to note that not all brand-name drugs have generic alternatives, since a brand-name drug has to be on the market for a certain number of years before its patent expires. And certainly many of those brand-name drugs have a tremendous impact on our health – some people simply couldn’t live without them. If you take a brand-name drug, talk to your doctor about whether there is a generic alternative available or if there are other options that can save you money. This could include taking an over-the-counter drug or making healthy lifestyle changes that reduce your need for medication. However, you should never stop or change any medications without talking to your doctor.
Encouraging the use of generic drugs is just one of the ways that BCBSRI is working to help make healthcare and health insurance more affordable for everyone. By working together, Rhode Islanders can help address the issues facing our healthcare system and ensure that everyone in our state has access to the healthcare that they need and deserve.
Gus Manocchia, M.D., is an internist and Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Provider Relations at BCBSRI.