Generics v. Brands

If you take any kind of medication — for whatever the reason — chances are you’ve had a conversation with your doctor about taking generic drugs. In the course of your conversation, chances are you’ve been told the generics you’ve been prescribed are exactly the same as brand name equivalent meds that are available at pharmacies — usually for significantly more money (if you’re insured, the co-pay is higher, and if you pay out-of-pocket, forget about the astronomical costs.)

Yet the thing is, we learned recently, from a man whose family owns Arlington Pharmacy, Kearny, this couldn’t be further from the truth in some cases. But the reason why this is the case may come as a bit of a surprise.

Enter Hetal Patel.

Patel’s family has owned the Kearny Avenue pharmacy since 1980. Say you’re taking a medication that is 10 mg. That 10 mg. of medication is so small in size that pharmaceutical companies must use additives to make the pills you’re taking large enough to be properly swallowed. And to make the pills swallowable, it’s the additives that are put into the medication that may, at times, cause severe allergies to the generic medication.

Were you aware of these additives? We certainly weren’t

But before we go further into that, there’s another reason why there could be allergies to certain generics.

According to Patel, every single medication made in the United States must have a unique shape and it must have a unique color. In other words, if you were to make a side-by-side comparison of any two generic medications — including the very same generic that might be made by different pharma companies — no two will look the same, by shape or by color.

“And those colors contain additives that could possess something a patient might be allergic to,” Patel said. “This is a F.D.A. requirement. It’s very strict.”

To help identify each drug created, pills are uniquely shaped, colored — and you may even notice there’s a series of numbers and letters imprinted on each pill. This is done to allow for immediate identification of medication’s name.

Don’t believe us? Take a pill you take’s number. Google it. You’ll see.

But it’s the additives that patients really need to worry about most when it comes to generic medications. And Patel offered an example of how one additive has affected one of his customers, who has a severe allergy to gluten.

“This patient’s high gluten allergy makes it necessary for us to keep a separate tray for dispensing medications for her,” Patel said. “The tray is cleaned every time we dispense for her and (the patient’s) name is kept on the tray so that it’s not used for anyone else. Even the slightest amount of gluten, which is used as an additive medications, could cause her a severe reaction.

“So we must do this for her — and we do so happily.”

So let’s say you do, indeed, learn that you’re allergic to a certain medication because of its additives? Patel says pharma companies have alternatives in play, designed to ensure you don’t go bankrupt. But it’s a bit of a process.

First, a doctor must write a letter to certify that a patient has a specific allergy to a medication.

“Then the doctor will send the letter to the pharmaceutical company,” Patel said.

Depending on the company in question, there are discounts or coupons — or other savings’ programs — available for the patient.

“In some cases, the companies will send coupons or other discounts to the patients so they can purchase brand names at an affordable price,” Patel said. “So if a person has an allergy, all is not lost with the allergy. It’s not a dead-end as one might expect. There is hope.”

This should be particularly comforting to patients whose co-pays are high, who have a high-deductible insurance plan or, for anyone who pays fully out-of-pocket for their medications.

“The pharmaceutical industry is very sensitive to this,” Patel said. “While there is a need to verify the allergies, where patients react badly to a medication, it’s not all lost.”

Most manufacturers have a toll-free number patients may call to see what programs are available for patients with verified allergies.

Now don’t panic if you do, indeed, take generics and aren’t allergic to them. Patel says he estimates a “very high percentage” of the population won’t have such allergies and shouldn’t worry about taking generics.

“It’s just that small percentage of the population,” he said. “The actual (generic) medications themselves must be the equivalent to the brand names. It’s the additives that matter here.”

Unsure of whether you might have such an allergy? Speak with your pharmacist and doctor right away. If you can determine you’re allergic to medication’s additives, you could get well on your way to saving a lot of money for the brand name right away. So don’t delay — have that conversation right away.

Learn more about the writer ...

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.