MEDICINES THAT cost less
BUYING GENERIC BRANDS WON’T HURT YOUR HEALTH, BUT IT WILL FATTEN UP YOUR WALLET. BY Clair Weaver.
In the current economic climate, nearly all of us are looking for ways to tighten our belts. But how many of us are looking in our medicine cabinets to save money? Swapping brand-name medicines for generic alternatives can add hundreds of dollars a year to your bank balance. And there is no compromise in quality, according to consumer watchdog Choice. But most of us remain loyal to brands we know, especially when it comes to health care.
Australia has one of the lowest user rates of generic medicines in the world, Melbourne’s Deakin University has found, at 18 per cent of prescriptions compared to 50 per cent in the US and 70 per cent in Denmark.
Generic drugs are stringently tested and must be proven to be “bio-equivalent” to the original brand to get approved by the Australian Government. This means they have the same active ingredients and can be expected to work just as quickly and effectively as their branded counterpart.
“We would encourage people to explore the world of generics because they are just as good and can save you significant amounts of money,” Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn says.
ARE BRANDS BEST?
Generics often cost less because they are developed by rival manufacturers once a pharmaceutical company’s patent on the original drug runs out. This patent, usually lasting 10 to 20 years, allows the first company to recoup the significant costs of researching, testing and developing a new medicine.
Once it expires, the company no longer has exclusive rights to manufacture and sell the drug, allowing others to produce cheaper copies using the same ingredients.
The price gap between these products can range from a few cents to as much as $ 80 per prescription. This is because the original drug may have a “brand premium” incorporated into its price tag, at an average of about $ 3.
“There needs to be a bit of a sales job when it comes to generics,” Zinn says. “People are so wedded to brands that they think they must be best when it comes to health.”
The only differences between a generic drug and a brand-name version are their appearance, packaging and inactive ingredients, such as fillers, binders or colouring. Patients with allergies to such ingredients should check before making the switch.
When a drug becomes eligible for subsidy under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme ( PBS), the Australian Government will only cover the cost of the lowest-priced version, leaving consumers to pay the difference on a branded version.
The National Prescribing Service ( NPS), an independent, non-profit medicine information service, is attempting to boost awareness of generics through its Generic Medicines are an Equal Choice campaign.
“More than 100 brand medicines will come off patent in the next 10 years, so by reducing the cost of the PBS, it will ensure Australians continue to have access to new medicines at an affordable price,” Dr Lynn Weekes, NPS CEO, says.
Even if there is little or no price difference at the pharmacy, choosing generics still saves the health system money in subsidies. Oneof
the most medic inesin widel
y lower Austr presc ingdrug aliais ribed
a was called chole origin simva sterol
- brand allyonly stin, name sold which
Zocor under can .Now the choos efrom patien
ts range a wide of
gener altern ic atives
“By helping to reduce the cost to the government, Australians are playing a part in ensuring the PBS is sustainable,” Dr Weekes says.
Part of the reason Australians don’t use generic medicines as much as the rest of the world is because the government has traditionally minimised the cost of new drugs under the PBS and there have been little cost savings. Public understanding of generics is also low.
But it’s not just patients who have been conditioned to buy branded medicines; doctors often prescribe by names rather than active ingredients. Neither is it in everyone’s interest for generics to take a larger share of the market.
“You can be sure all the drug [ company] reps that go round to doctors aren’t saying, ‘Make sure people buy generics’,” Zinn says.
Consumers can still save money by choosing generic over-the-counter medicines. Handbag staples such as Nurofen and Panadol have a plethora of cheaper substitutes, commonly named by their active ingredients ibuprofen and paracetamol. Ask if your pharmacist can offer cheaper generics.
The online NPS Medicine Name Finder was recently launched to help consumers find out the active ingredient in their prescription medicines. There are very few medicines that shouldn’t be substituted with a generic.
Demand for generic medicines is expected to rise further as pressure on our wallets increases. “If times are hard and people are presented with the cold, hard facts – you can buy something that is exactly the same as something else – why wouldn’t you buy it?” Zinn says.