Finding Value in No-Name Drugs


STOP BUYING TYLENOL, Aleve, Motrin or any other brand-name painkiller,” writes Sarah Kliff on Vox.com. Instead, choose acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen.   Generic versions cost about one-third of brand-name drugs, or according to the FDA, are usually 80 to 85 percent cheaper.

Although more than half of all painkiller sales in the United States are for name brands, pharmacists choose brand-name products for only 9 percent of their purchases, and health professionals across the board are “significantly more likely to buy generic ibuprofen that the rest of us,” according to Dutch research – which found that the people most likely to purchase brand-name products are those who cannot name the active ingredient in the painkillers they buy.

At Walgreens.com, the price of Tylenol (Extra strength, 100 tablets) is $9.49 compared with Acetaminophen (Extra strength, 100 tablets) for $2.39, according to the comparison site diffen.com (although I couldn’t find these exact formulations or prices).

When Consumer Reports’s “secret shoppers” called more than 200 pharmacies throughout the U.S. to ask about the price of five “blockbuster” generic drugs — including the antidepressant Lexapro and the statin Lipitor – and then added up the prices for all five at each store, they found a “whopping difference of $749, or 447 percent between the highest- and lowest- priced stores.”

The least expensive was Costco; online retailers Healthwarehouse.com and FamilyMeds.com also had very low prices. CVS, Rite Aid and Target had the highest prices, which their representatives say covers the additional services offered, including 24-hour pharmacies (Costco pharmacies are only open 10 a.m. to 7 or 8:30 p.m.), automated prescription refill services, etc. A month’s supply of Lexapro, 20 mg., went for $7 at Costco versus $126 at CVS.

It turns out drug purchasers should be proactive about prices; the Consumer Reports shoppers were not always given the lowest price. “Be sure to explain – whether you have insurance or not – that you want the lowest price,” Consumer Reports advises.  “Our shoppers found that student and senior discounts may also apply, but again, you have to ask.”

Rural pharmacies can also have lower prices: a 30-day supply of generic Actos, a diabetes medication, in the city of Raleigh, N.C. costs $203, compared to $37 at a rural North Carolina store. Because most pharmacies offer discounts on a three-month supply, try to get the 90-day refill instead of 30.

Although these numbers make it tempting to shop around, Consumer Reports’ medical consultants advise using a single pharmacy to help avoid dangerous drug interactions.

According to FDA regulations, a generic must be as safe and as effective as the brand-name drug, though trademark laws mean the two cannot look the same. That said, when a friend was prescribed Zoloft, her doctor specified getting the generic made by Greenstone, which was not available at her local CVS. Greenstone LLC is owned by Pfizer, the original developer of Zoloft. The Greenstone pill is considered a “branded generic” because it is produced by a generics manufacturer (Greenstone) that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the company that makes the branded version (Pfizer).

“Branded generics” can also be those given a “brand” name by their generic manufacturer – very confusing! Also confusing: the one drug that health professionals are more likely than everyone else to buy in its brand-name formulation, not the generic, is Alka-Seltzer — though no one knows the reason why.

— Mary Carpenter

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