Beware of some generic drugs.

Generic drugs provide significant savings and 80% of all prescriptions in the US are filled with generic drugs. Many doctors are skeptical when patients complain that the generic is not as good as the brand. But not all generics are created equal, literally. For example, there are about 10 generic manufacturers of Imitrex (sumatriptan). I’ve had patients tell me that certain generics, particularly the ones made by an Indian company Ranbaxy, are much less effective than the brand or generics made by other manufacturers. This problem is widespread and one of my previous posts described a study of the use of generic Topamax (topiramate) in epilepsy patients (this drug is also approved for the prevention of migraines). Patients on a generic were admitted to the hospital more often, had longer hospital stays, and were three times more likely to sustain head injury or a bone fracture.

Yesterday, The New York Times published an expose on the generic manufacturers in India. Ranbaxy was one of the generic drug makers that was reported to have the most problems. Its plants are being repeatedly shut down by the American FDA, who also imposed a $500 million fine. The article cites understaffed regulatory bodies and corruption as the main reasons for poor quality controls. One survey showed that 12% of medications sold in India contained no active ingredients, including life-saving drugs such as antibiotics and cancer drugs. It is not clear what percentage of drugs entering the US is adulterated. At least in India the FDA is allowed to inspect plants and impose fines. In China, the government has refused to let the FDA expand its monitoring. The article has this ominous ending:
“The United States has become so dependent on Chinese imports, however, that the F.D.A. may not be able to do much about the Chinese refusal. The crucial ingredients for nearly all antibiotics, steroids and many other lifesaving drugs are now made exclusively in China.”

So what can you do to protect yourself? By law, the name of the manufacturer must be printed on the medicine bottle you get from the pharmacy. If you find a generic that works well, try to stick to it. If your pharmacy suddenly changes the generic manufacturer and the drug is not as effective or causes side effects, you may want to ask them to get you the generic that worked. The big chains such as Walgreens and CVS may not be able to do it, but most independent pharmacies have more flexibility. You can also try switching from one chain to another since they often stock generics from different companies.

One more tip is from my recent previous post – check for the lowest prices in your area. Also, it is not unusual for your insurance copay to be higher than the actual cost of medicine. For example, you copay could be $15 or more, while if you buy the same generic drug without insurance, it will cost you $4 or $10. And do not expect the pharmacist to tell you this.

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