More generics coming to help patients save

Certified pharmacy technicians Amanda Jackson, left, and Kayla Bryant fill prescriptions at Lake Sumter Landing Pharmacy. Federal regulators are on target to approve a record number of generic drugs in 2019.

Bernadette “Bunny” Sheehy wishes she could cut costs while waiting for a cheaper form of her medicine to come to market. The Village of Fernandina resident has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which blocks airflow in the lungs. She’s taken Advair Diskus for  12 years, but the price has gone up.  She tried rationing her inhaler, taking one puff a day instead of two, until her daughter and daughter-in-law, both nurses, told her never do that again. She doesn’t want to take help from her children. Now, she may not have to. Though numbers aren’t final, the Food and Drug Administration is on track to okay 1,171 generic drugs this year, breaking the record of 971 set in 2018.

That includes 125 applications for the first generics of medicines that had none before, including Advair Diskus. Sheehy will start taking the generic this month.

“This year, quite a few brand-name (drugs) have been approved as generic,” said Vatsal Patel, pharmacist and owner of Lake Sumter Landing Pharmacy. “That does help a lot.”

Since going generic in January, Advair’s price has dropped from $380-$450 per month to $80-$110 for his customers, he said.

Generic drugs often save money for consumers and insurers.

They account for about 90% of all prescription drugs purchased in the U.S.

Last year, competition from generic drugs saved the health care system about $293 billion, according to the FDA.

“We’re encouraged to see that the pipeline of generic drug applications is strong and that there is ongoing interest in the development of generic versions of complex drugs and of other drugs with inadequate generic competition,” said Dr. Norman Sharpless, acting FDA commissioner, in an Oct. 16 news release.

Dr. Suzanne Graham-Hooker, a physician with The Villages Health, said she’s happy to have more generic options for patients.

It’s common for Medicare patients to come in requesting generics, she said, especially when entering a gap in their coverage, commonly referred to as the doughnut hole.

“When they get into the doughnut hole, now they’re stuck,” Graham-Hooker said. “They have to make a choice, sometimes between food and paying for that medication.”

Beneficiaries used to pay all of their prescription costs after entering the gap. Thanks to federal changes, the doughnut hole is closing in 2019.

Upon reaching the coverage gap this year, patients were to pay no more than 25% of their plan’s cost for covered brand-name prescription drugs and 37% of the price of generics, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Still, paying for prescriptions remains an issue for older adults.

Nearly 1 in 4 Americans aged 65 and older said they had difficulty paying for prescription drugs, according to a poll this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit.

“Most of the people who are in The Villages live on a fixed income, so it’s a problem,” Patel said.

But generics don’t work as well for some patients, Graham-Hooker said. However, she said it’s ideal for them to have the opportunity to try a cheaper form.

And despite the new generic approvals for some popular drugs, some drugs still don’t have a generic equivalent.

Graham-Hooker pointed to the high costs of some insulins and newer blood thinners.

“The patients don’t have a choice,” she said.

Rising costs of prescription drugs have caught the attention of lawmakers. Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have publicly supported lower drug costs. In June, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a plan to import prescription drugs from Canada in The Villages.

When President Donald Trump visited The Villages in October, he praised DeSantis’ effort, saying the safe and legal importation of prescription drugs from other countries soon would be allowed.

In July, the Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA released the Safe Importation Action Plan that describes steps they would take to allow the safe importation of certain drugs originally intended for foreign markets.

Also in July, Scott co-sponsored a bipartisan bill introduced in July that would establish a process to determine reasonable drug prices by working with the National Academy of Medicine.

But these federal and state efforts haven’t been finalized, and Patel hasn’t seen any effect as of yet.

“It has not trickled down to the pharmacy yet for the patient to benefit from it,” Patel said. “(But) It certainly has gotten the ball rolling.”

Senior writer Ciara Varone can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5395, or ciara.varone@thevillagesmedia.com.