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Controlling your medication costs

As a consumer, you are constantly barraged by television, newspaper, and magazine ads touting new medications as the "first medication" or the "only medication" of its kind. This direct-to-consumer advertising can be very persuasive to patients and providers, often convincing them those new medications are superior to existing drug regimens. Although new drugs sometimes offer specific benefits over older therapies, it is important to note that there are almost always generic alternatives available that offer the same clinical effects at a fraction of the cost. Because generic manufacturers do not advertise directly to the public, consumers are often unaware of less expensive alternatives that exist.

Advertising is the single largest factor in the rising cost of prescription drugs. Direct-to- consumer advertising and marketing to physicians not only drive the cost of prescription drugs up, but they influence prescribing patterns. Manufacturers employ drug representatives to aggressively market products to physicians. Often times, marketing materials provided by the drug companies are the physician's single major source of information about a new drug. Because this information is intended as a sales tool, it is often biased. Moreover, because generic medications are not promoted by drug representatives, providers hear significantly less about them, even though many generics are as good as or better than brand name products.

In addition, providers are often given large quantities of free samples by drug representatives. In many cases, this is a win/win situation for both parties. Drug companies are able to increase the number of prescriptions used for their products and providers are able to give samples to their patients to see if they tolerate the medication before writing a long-term prescription. However, active sampling often leads to the use of expensive brand name products when there are less expensive generic products available. Paying out of pocket for the first supply of generic medication is always less expensive than getting a free supply of samples and paying for the brand name medication in the long term.

In our society, we often equate increased cost with better quality. If something is more expensive, then we as consumers believe that it must be better. This is not the case in the prescription drug industry. For example, studies have shown that inexpensive generics that have been on the market for decades are more effective in lowering blood pressure than many expensive brand name medications. Evidence such as this begs the question why patients often pay more money for therapies that have proven to be less effective. As a consumer and a patient, it is important to know that more expensive does not always mean better.

Not only are generic drugs significantly less expensive than brand name medications, but generics have stood the test of time and usually have a proven track record of safety and efficacy. On the contrary, new medications do not have a proven track record of safety and efficacy. They may not have been tested in a large enough population to observe rare side effects. Vioxx® (rofecoxib) is a prime example. Vioxx® was introduced and marketed as the superior non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication because of its minimal side effects on the stomach in comparison to drugs such as naproxen (Aleve®) and ibuprofen (Motrin®). Although the cost of Vioxx® was significantly higher than generic alternatives, it became a frequently prescribed pain reliever due to aggressive marketing tactics and consumer demand. Vioxx® was recently voluntarily taken off the market by Merck because of a study indicating increased risk of heart attacks or strokes due to clot formation. Drugs in the same class such as Celebrex® and Bextra® are now being closely monitored by the FDA for similar adverse effects. Vioxx® should serve as a reminder that newer does not always mean better. New and supposedly improved medications are not always better than older, safer and proven products.

Because providers are shielded from the actual costs of the medications they prescribe, it is often up to the patient to control their prescription drug costs. Here are a few simple tips to enable you as the consumer to minimize your medication costs:

  • Remember that newer, more expensive drugs are not necessarily better. Ask your provider about generic alternatives to expensive brand name medications. If there is a generic medication available, ask for it.
  • Ask your provider if medication therapy is necessary. For example, sleep aid medications are being used more and more as people age. In reality, we need less sleep as we age and diagnose ourselves as having insomnia when, in fact, we can often function on less sleep. In this case, your provider may agree that sleep aids are not necessary.
  • Voice concern to your provider's office if you find a large amount of advertising for brand name medications in waiting rooms and patient rooms.
  • Ask your provider if there are over-the-counter (OTC) products available to obtain the same results as prescription medications. Often these OTCs will be less expensive than your co-pay and will provide the same relief.

In recent years, drug costs have increased exponentially, outpacing inflation nearly four times over annually. Rising drug costs are one of the single largest causes of the ballooning cost of health care. Although rising drug costs are inevitable, there are many ways that you, the patient, with the help of your physician, can minimize your prescription drug costs while maintaining the same quality of health.

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Controlling Costs
Controlling Your Medication Costs - If something is more expensive, then we as consumers believe that it must be better. This is not the case in the prescription drug industry... Read more
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Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine InfantRisk Center

Under the leadership of Dr. Tom Hale of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, the InfantRisk Center has been established as a national call center to answer questions about medication safety for pregnant and breastfeeding women.