Equal opportunity

There’s no need to be confused or worried by the offer of cheaper medicines when you have a prescription filled – a lower price does not mean lower quality.   

Words: Chris Sheedy

Generic medicine

It’s common these days for a pharmacist to offer a cheaper generic alternative to a prescribed medicine. Generic brands are no different to the original version of the medicine (the ‘originator’); they’ve just had to wait until the originator drug’s patent expired before their identical version could hit the shelves.

Dr Michael Tatchell, national director of health economics at the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, explains that from the date of patent application for a new medicine, the drug company’s investment is protected against competition for up to 25 years. This allows drug companies to recoup their development costs and make a profit and also encourages them to continue spending money on innovation. Once the patent has expired, other generic versions of the medicine are allowed onto the market.

“The generics must meet all of the same stringent quality tests in order to be registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration and be allowed on sale,” says Dr Tatchell.

So, is there anything to worry about in swapping the originator with the generic? Dr Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association, says that only a few generics are not immediately interchangeable. He explains that most pharmacists will know immediately the drugs that should not be swapped, such as warfarin and drugs for epilepsy. There is also a ‘Do Not Substitute’ check box on the prescription itself that the doctor can tick, which means that the pharmacist will not offer another brand.

The other cause for concern is potential confusion, such as doubling up by taking both the generic and originator versions, says Dr Hambleton. He says the best way to avoid confusion is to ask the pharmacist to pre-dispense the tablets for you. “This simply means that the tablets are placed into small boxes marked with the day and time they should be taken.”

In most cases, the generic version represents a significant saving. Dr Tatchell refers to a contraceptive pill originator brand that retails for more than $30 per pack and has a generic equivalent – the same product manufactured by a subsidiary company but retailed in different packaging – that costs about $17.

“The benefits of the cost saving are progressive,” says Dr Hambleton. “Over a period of time, as medicines are subjected to competition, the price comes down. That is a good thing for Australia.”

The PBS safety net

Most medicines cost a lot more but are subsidised by the Australian Government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Generally, the maximum price for a single PBS medicine is $36.90 (or $6 for concession card holders), unless you choose, or your doctor specifically requests, a more expensive brand.

If you regularly buy medicines for yourself and/or your family, keep a tally on a Prescription Record Form (see your pharmacist). Once you reach $1,421.20 ($360 for concession card holders) – the Safety Net Threshold – ask your pharmacist for a Safety Net Card, meaning the most you will pay for the rest of the year is $6 per PBS medicine (free for concession card holders).

Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this article. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.