Many common generic drugs beat brand names when it comes to safety, efficacy, and cost.  Yet a new report in the March issue of Consumer Reports (CR) finds many consumers aren’t taking advantage of the discount drug programs offering these drugs at prices as low as $4 a month. 

“Retailers like Kmart, Target, Walgreens and Walmart have been steadily expanding their discount programs, offering $4 a month prescriptions for drugs that our evidence based program deems ‘best buys,’ said Lisa Gill, editor, Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs (BBD).  “We suspect that consumers aren’t taking full advantage of these programs because of the constant din of drug advertising which is steering consumers toward overpriced brand name drugs.” 

CR BBD identifies “best buys” based on a review of the medical evidence in partnership with the Drug Effectiveness Review Project (DERP), based at Oregon Health & Science University. For each class of drugs to treat a given condition, Consumer Reports BBD uses an analysis of hundreds of studies -- and sometimes thousands -- by DERP to derive its “best buy” designations.   

Hard sell

Drugmakers shell out billions of dollars each year to target consumers with their ads. In 2009, they spent $4.3 billion to reach consumers and $6.6 billion on promotions aimed at doctors, according to IMS Health, which tracks drug sales and marketing.  

Drug ads aimed at persuading consumers to ask for a drug by name are working: In a recent poll by Consumer Reports Health, one in five people said they’d asked for a drug they’d seen on TV and most (59 percent) of them said their doctor agreed to write the prescription. 

Best buys

The Best Buy Drugs report explains that generic drug makers must prove that their product contains the identical active ingredients as their brand name counterpart and that the drug is “bioequivalent,” meaning that as much active ingredient enters and leaves the bloodstream at the same speed.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates generics just as it does brand-name drugs and monitors them once they’re on the market.  To date, the FDA has found no difference in the rate of adverse reactions between generic and brand-name drugs. 

“Generics look different from brands because of trademark issues but they’re equivalent in efficacy and consumers can save up to 80 percent off the retail price,” said John Santa, M.D., M.P.H., director, Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

Brand names vs. generics: 

  • High Cholesterol.  Not all cholesterol-lowering drugs are the same. Inexpensive generics are the best option unless an individual has had a heart attack or has another heart problem.   Consumer Reports BBD identifies lovastatin (generic) as a “best buy” at $4 a month versus Lipitor at $112 a month.
  • Pain.  For treating moderate pain such as muscle aches or headaches, the best bet may already be in your medicine cabinet. BBD recommends ibuprofen (generic) for $4 a month versus riskier Celebrex at $139 a month.
  • Depression.  For individuals who need an antidepressant, CR BBD recommends five inexpensive generics with which to start treatment.  Compare the recommended fluoxetine (generic) at $4 a month versus heavily advertised Cymbalta for an estimated $181 a month.  BBD notes that up to 40 percent of people will find no relief with the first antidepressant they try and may need to try a second, different medication or even a third before they find a drug that works for them.

 

Tips for purchasing $4 generics: 

  • Consumers can purchase a 30-day supply for $4 at Target or Walmart without paying a fee.  It’s worth considering a 90-day supply for even greater savings per dose.
  • The following programs require a fee: CVS ($15/year), Kmart ($10/year for one of their programs; another is free), and Walgreens ($20/year for individuals and $35 for the family).  The Costco program is free to Costco members and membership costs $50/year. 
  • Ask about restrictions. Some programs are offered only to people without insurance or are not for medications that are covered by insurance.  And some are not available in certain states or their prices might be higher.
  • Check with your independent pharmacy.  Some will match those deals when possible.
  • Review the discount lists frequently for updates and new additions.  Lipitor and Plavix, two major heart drugs, are likely to become available as a generic over the next 36 months.