Watching for Patent Expiration
Dates Can Save Consumers on Prescription Drug Costs
Consumers who rely on prescription drugs know well
that costs for such remedies are increasing faster than the rate
of inflation. Many are older people on fixed incomes with no
outpatient drug benefit.
What can they do?
In some cases, generic drugs are the answer. They are less costly,
and in most cases, just as effective as the better known brand
A recent study found that a 10 percent increase in generic drug
use would cut drug costs in the U.S. by more than $11 billion
"Every percentage point of increased generic drug usage
translates into a savings of over $1 billion annually,"
said Dr. Timothy Covington of Samford's McWhorter School of Pharmacy.
One thing consumers can do is watch for patent expiration dates
on brand name drugs. Once a popular drug loses its patent protection,
less-costly generic drugs enter the market.
According to the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, four such
drugs are scheduled to lose patent protection in 2001: Prozac,
used in treating depression, Feb. 2; Prilosec, an ulcer treatment,
April 1; Mevacor, to lower cholesterol, June 15; and Zestril,
to treat hypertension, Dec. 30.
If no generic substitution is available, over-the-counter remedies
can sometimes be substituted for more expensive prescription
drugs, according to Covington. The anti-inflammatory Motrin and
the ulcer remedy Zantac are examples.
Drug producers receive a 20-year patent on brand name remedies
because of the huge research and development investments necessary
to bring a new drug to market. Once the patent expires, generic
drug producers don't have to spend as much to produce the same
basic remedy, so they can charge substantially less.
Even so, generic drugs must also be cleared by the Food and Drug
What else can consumers do to
lower drug costs if their remedy is still under patent protection?
They might be able to use "me, too," or copycat medications.
"'Me, toos' can represent modest therapeutic advances-perhaps
they have fewer side effects, or you only have to take them once
a day instead of every eight hours," said Covington. "But
not always. Sometimes, copycat drugs aren't any better relative
to effectiveness or safety, and they have to compete purely based