illustration of pills shaped into a dollar sign ($)

Generic drugs are supposed to be inexpensive alternatives to pricey brand name medications. But in recent months there has been a surge in the price of some generic drugs, making them absurdly expensive.

When most patients think about the difference between the cost of brand name medicine and a generic, they imagine saving a bundle. And they can. For example, the beta blocker heart medicine Coreg (12.5 mg) costs $349.49 for a 90-day supply at a chain pharmacy. The generic carvedilol costs $10 for the same amount at a big-box discount drug store.


Rising Generic Drug Prices

But recently, the prices of some generic drugs have been skyrocketing. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine (Nov. 13, 2014) points out that the price of the blood pressure medicine captopril increased more than 2800 percent between November 2012 and November 2013. It went from 1.4 to 39.9 cents per pill.

Doxycycline was first marketed as Vibramycin in 1967. It has long been available as an inexpensive broad-spectrum generic antibiotic prescribed for a variety of bacterial infections including Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other tick borne diseases, respiratory infections and urinary tract infections, to name just a few. Doxycycline is an essential drug that is prescribed every day. It is a life saver. Between 2012 and 2013 the price went from 6.3 cents to $3.36 cents per pill. That is an increase of over 5000 percent.

Why Are Prices Rising?

Why are generic drug makers jacking up their prices so dramatically? There are no research and development costs to amortize. The process of making the medication has long been established and doesn’t have to be re-invented.

But apparently the low cost of generic medicines has made the market less attractive for many drug companies. Those that are left may end up with a near monopoly on certain products. That means they can charge whatever they want.

Old Heart Medicine

Digoxin is a heart medicine derived originally from foxglove. The ancient Romans used digitalis, the active ingredient in this plant. The brand name Lanoxin was first sold in the UK in 1939.

In 1985, 100 Lanoxin pills cost $3.00. By 1995 the same amount cost $8.59. In 2004 the branded product cost $24.69. A year ago, the generic digoxin cost $113.12 for 90 pills.

What this means is that many patients may no longer be able to afford crucial medicines. Their co-pays have climbed along with the price of the generic drug.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD, writing in The New York Times (July 8, 2014), tells of a patient who didn’t fill her prescription for digoxin because she couldn’t afford $1.60 per pill. She ended up in intensive care.

Coping with High Costs

To learn more about how to deal with exorbitant drug prices, you may wish to consult our Guide to Saving Money on Medicine. In some cases Canadian prices may be substantially lower than those in the U.S. You will learn how to evaluate online pharmacies in this guide.

The government is investigating whether generic drug price increases are caused by anticompetitive practices. The Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging has just held hearings on generic drug costs. Until they figure out what has happened and take corrective measures, patients are going to have to shop carefully.

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  1. Betty

    I have suspected that once the Affordable Care Act came into existence that the cost of drugs and medical care would soar simply because it provides an easy tool for the pharmaceuticals and hospitals and doctors to rip off the government. Seems that almost anything that’s managed by the federal government becomes corrupted because it has nothing in place to police the agencies.

  2. Helen M
    Modesto, CA

    I have recently changed my Medicare Advantage plan; however, it was a hard choice. I take insulin and one branded medication, for which there are no generics. All but one company moved my Lyrica, the brand, to Tier 4. None of my choices had both insulins that I take on their formulary. As it happens I have a freebie on one of the insulins, as does a friend. This will carry me through the year. The company I have chosen, where I can get a 90 day supply of lyrica, using their mail order company, for $60, does not cover generics thru the gap. I have two generics that are comparatively expensive, about $100 per month each. Since open enrollment is still on, for a couple more weeks, I have been dithering about my choice. However, now that you mention Canadian pharmacies, I feel better. Additionally, I believe Walmart will supply the others on their $4 program. Thanks again, for the information you provide.

  3. M. Storms MD

    I am a strong believer that it is a public health imperative for the government to regulate and control supplies of vaccines, medications, IV fluids such as normal saline, and other needed medical supplies. The ongoing issue of medication shortages is no laughing matter. It has been going on for years now and has compromised care of people. We are a first-world country that should be able to ensure availability of health care resources for all. Instead, we are often held hostage by pharmaceutical companies and hospital supply companies.

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