In the next two years, six of the 10 top-selling drugs will lose their patents, meaning other companies can make the medications and sell them at a huge discount, perhaps up to 80 percent off.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, generic drugs have the same "high quality, strength, purity and stability as brand-name drugs." A study published in the August issue of International Angiology found that generic atorvastatin worked just as well as Lipitor, the top-selling drug in the world, slated to go generic later this year.
But just like brand-name drugs, generics have an uneven safety record. In 2008, Baxter Healthcare recalled its version of heparin, a generic blood thinner, after it was found to be contaminated. Eighty-one people in the U.S. and Germany died after taking the tainted medication, although it's unclear how many deaths were related to the drug.
And despite the reassurances from the FDA, studies have found that some generics don't act in exactly the same way as the brand-name drugs, which can be a problem for drugs that operate on a thin margin for error. In April, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported in the Annals of Neurology that there's a roughly 10 percent chance that switching from a brand name to a generic anti-epilepsy drug would change the peak concentration that the drug reaches in the body.
Put more simply: Price may not be the only difference between a brand name and a generic drug.
Because of a Supreme Court ruling in June, you won't be able to sue makers of prescription drugs for complications or side effects that aren't listed on the label.
If your doctor suggests switching to a generic, you can take it with confidence — but also with caution. Generics may be cheap, but they're serious medicine.
Generics on the horizon
Here's when these top-selling drugs are slated to lose their patents.
Seroquel: March 2012
Plavix: May 2012
Singulair: August 2012
Actos: August 2012
Enbrel: October 2012
Sources: IBISWorld, SEC filings