Consumer Reports: Brand-name drugs can be far more costly but no more effective

January 16, 2012

Just 5 percent of patients learn about the price of prescribed drugs during the doctor visit, according to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. But many expensive brand-name medications have equally effective counterparts that cost far less. The drugs below are cases in point. Despite marketers’ attempts to convince you and your doctor otherwise, the name brands are no better than (and in one case, no different from) the less expensive alternatives Consumer Reports identified. Bottom line: Ask your doctor about retail prices even if your insurance covers most of the cost. High prices affect everyone because insurers end up boosting premiums to make a profit. And a less expensive drug can save you money if you have a high co-pay.

Condition: Acid reflux

Expensive drug: Nexium (esomeprazole)

Approximate cost per month: $248

Alternative: Prilosec OTC (omeprazole)
Approximate cost/month: $24

Savings: 90 percent

The “little purple pill” isn’t yet available as a generic, but nonprescription Prilosec OTC, a chemical cousin, works in much the same way. (They’re proton pump inhibitors, for treating chronic heartburn and acid reflux.)

Condition: High triglycerides

Expensive drug: Lovaza (omega-3-acid ethyl esters)

Approximate cost per month: $213

Alternative: Fish-oil capsules

Approximate cost/month: $10

Savings: 95 percent

This prescription fish-oil pill is approved to reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. People whose level is at least 500 milligrams per deciliter might benefit from the potent dose of omega-3 fatty acids contained in Lovaza. But the American Heart Association tells others with heart disease to take one gram of omega-3 oils per day, the amount in three or four fish-oil capsules.

Condition: Age-related macular degeneration

Expensive drug: Lucentis (ranibizumab)

Approximate cost per month: $1,950

Alternative: Avastin (bevacizumab)

Approximate cost/month: $50

Savings: 97 percent

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Lucentis injections for treating this leading cause of vision loss in older people. Avastin is a chemical cousin approved to treat colon cancer but used off-label to treat AMD. Recent research has shown Avastin works as well as Lucentis in improving eyesight.

Condition: Premenstrual dysphoric disorder

Expensive drug: Sarafem (fluoxetine)

Approximate cost per month: $243

Alternative: Fluoxetine

Approximate cost/month: $4

Savings: 98 percent

Sarafem and Prozac are the same. After its patent expired and generic fluoxetine became available, Prozac was rebranded and prescribed for a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. What’s in a name? About $239 a month.

Copyright 2011. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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