News/Media Center

July 21, 2003

Prescription drugs prove beneficial, but costly
- by Ralph H. Weber, M.D., Vice president, medical affairs, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas

Every day seems to bring news of a new drug discovery, along with TV ads filled with visions of blue skies, sunny days and slow-motion jaunts across fields of green. Americans are using more prescription drugs to manage health conditions and prevent problems than ever before. In fact, there were 10 prescriptions written for every man, woman and child in America last year, costing $155 billion.

The good news is that’s one of the reasons we’re living healthier, longer lives. The bad news is that amount we spend on drugs increases nearly 20 percent every year, and is one of the main reasons the cost of health care is increasing for everyone.

The cost of prescription drugs is going up largely as a result of the billions of dollars that drug companies spend on advertising. Not only do these marketing costs increase the price of brand-name drugs, but the ads also drive up consumer demand for the drugs.

Several years ago, the government allowed drug companies to begin advertising their medications directly to consumers in the form of television, radio and print advertising. In 2000, drug companies spent $2.5 billion on these ads.

To illustrate just how much money they are spending, the makers of Vioxx paid more to advertise their anti-inflammatory drug in 2000 than Pepsi used in the cola war with Coke. That’s right. The makers of Vioxx spent $160 million compared to $125 million for Pepsi.

All this advertising has dramatically increased consumer demand for new, expensive brand-name drugs. The ads encourage consumers to ask their doctors for a specific brand-name drug. They often do so without knowing whether it is the best treatment for their condition.

The advertising also discourages many consumers from asking about generic drugs. We could save literally millions of dollars in health care costs each year if more people used generic drugs. Consider this: the average brand name drug costs $72; the average FDA-approved generic equivalent costs $22.

Unfortunately, many people are still skeptical about generic drugs. However, generic drugs are as safe and effective as their brand-name counterparts, and must meet the same stringent standards set by the FDA. The FDA makes sure that a generic drug has the same active ingredients, the same strength and the same dosage as its brand-name counterpart. By choosing lower-cost generic drugs, we pay for the medicine, not the marketing.

If you need a prescription medication, one of the questions you should always ask your doctor or pharmacist is if a generic drug is right for you. There are other simple ways you can help control medication costs:

  • Ask your doctor if you really need a particular prescription or whether an alternative diet, exercise regime or over-the-counter medication could provide the same results.
  • Periodically ask your doctor to review all the medications you take to help you determine which ones are necessary and which ones might no longer be.
  • Request samples when trying a drug you haven’t taken before to make sure it works for you before you purchase a larger supply. Remember to still ask about a generic version of the drug if the sample works for you.
  • Store drugs in a cool, dry, safe place to help them last longer and to prevent accidental use.
  • Follow all the directions your doctor and pharmacist give you for taking your medication.

We all have a role to play in keeping health care affordable. And because we all pay for the rising cost of health care through increased premiums, copayments and deductibles, we all have a stake as well. Choosing generic drugs or over-the-counter medications, and working with your doctor are a few ways you can help keep costs down for everyone.


Ralph H. Weber, MD, is vice president of medical affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas. He spent 10 years in private practice in Salina before joining the health insurer in 1988. He was promoted to vice president in 1990.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. BCBSKS is the state's largest health insurer, serving all Kansas counties except Johnson and Wyandotte.