"When Lipitor went generic, there must have been half a dozen guys getting approval to make a generic version," Toomajian said of the blockbuster cholesterol drug, whose patent expired in 2011. "You don't see that as much today."
I asked Kaiser if I could speak with its current drug purchasing manager, but the HMO declined.
So I contacted David Gaugh, vice president for sciences and regulatory affairs at the Generic Pharmaceutical Assn., an industry group. I told him what the drugstores had told me, that manufacturers are often to blame for high prices.
Gaugh shrugged off the criticism. "They can say that if they like," he said. Manufacturers believe generics are priced fairly, Gaugh said.
"Do we have a perfect system? Maybe not," he said. "But it's a pretty darn good system."
Gaugh compared generic drugs with candy bars. Are consumers wringing their hands over whether a candy bar is priced fairly?
Perhaps not. But people can choose not to buy a Snickers bar. They may not have that choice for a prescription medicine.
Healthcare is your classic captive market. Consumers typically will pay whatever price is charged, or their insurer will pay and then take their pound of flesh from policyholders in the form of higher premiums.
Americans may never be rid of the profit motive when it comes to medical treatment and prescription drugs. But at the very least we can expect to be charged a fair price.
Generic drugs are cheaper than name-brand drugs. That's saying something. But it's not saying much.