On average, prescription drug costs in the U.S. are the highest in the
world, but that doesn't mean that there aren't relative bargains to be had.
For example, a recent FDA study shows that generic drugs may in some cases
be cheaper in the U.S. than either the brand-name or generic versions of the
same drug sold in Canada. Generic drugs account for half of all prescription
drugs sold in the U.S.
FDA analysts compared drug prices in the U.S. and Canada for seven
best-selling generic prescription drugs for
chronic conditions, such as anxiety disorders, seizure disorders,
high blood pressure, depression, heart failure, and
type 2 diabetes.
"For six of the seven drugs, the U.S. generics were priced lower than
the brand-name versions in Canada. Five of the seven U.S. generic drugs were
also cheaper than the Canadian generics. Of the remaining two U.S. generic
drugs, one (enalapril for high
blood pressure) was unavailable in Canada generically, and its Canadian
brand-name version was more than five times the price of the U.S. generic
equivalent. The other U.S. generic (metformin for type 2 diabetes) sold for
less in Canada both as a generic and as a brand name," writes Linda Bren in
the July-August 2004 issue of FDA Consumer magazine.
The FDA defines a generic drug as "a copy that is the same as a
brand-name drug in dosage, safety, strength, how it is taken, quality,
performance, and intended use." Under Federal regulations, generics have to
be comparable to the original in all important aspects such as potency, speed
of action, duration of drug effect, purity of the compound, and stability
Generics are cheaper than the originals because the manufacturers don't have
the same costs associated with developing and bringing a new drug to market. In
addition, because many different manufacturers can produce a generic drug,
competition drives the price lower. For example, several different companies in
the U.S. and abroad now manufacture the over-the-counter pain reliever
ibuprofen, which started life as the prescription drug Motrin. Similarly
generic versions of the decongestant pseudoephedrine now crowd drugstore
shelves side-by-side with the Sudafed brand.
Generics are available for many popular brand drugs. For the
antidepressant Prozac, there is the generic fluoxetine; for the heartburn
drug Prilosec, there is the generic omeprazole; and for the cholesterol drug
Mevacor, there is the generic lovastatin. Overall, the U.S. Congressional
Budget Office estimates that generic drugs save consumers between $8 billion
and $10 billion a year at retail pharmacies. But remember, the price of all
drugs -- generic and brand name -- varies greatly depending on the pharmacy.
Call around to find the best deal for you in your community.
Another point to keep in mind: While the FDA says generics are identical in
action and quality to brand drugs, they may contain different inactive
ingredients that hold the pill or capsule together. Don't be surprised if the
generic looks or smells different than the brand drug.