The economy is making it even more challenging for people to pay out-of-pocket for prescriptions. Though the financial burden of paying out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs has declined, it may still be a hardship for people with lower incomes and those with public insurance. Turning to generic medicines could help those who need cheaper prescriptions, according to RAND.

A non-profit research institution, RAND researchers are known for finding ways to improve policies on many issues including healthcare and national security. In their most recent research study, The Financial Burden from Prescription Drugs Has Declined Recently for the Non-elderly, Although It Is Still High for Many, RAND investigated the prescription spending of people who were tracked by the federal Medical Expenditure Panel Survey from 1999 to 2008.

RAND found that families’ out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs increased from 1999 to 2003, and declined between 2003 and 2007.

Yet, even in 1999 64.5 million non-elderly Americans belonged to families whose out-of-pocket drug costs accounted for more than half of all out-of-pocket health care costs.

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System staff physician Wallid Gellad, who was a researcher on the study, told theGrio that the findings suggest people were buying generic medications instead of brand-names to reduce their health care costs.

“It looks like the healthcare system we have in place is pushing people towards purchasing generic drugs since many are lower in price compared to brand names,” Gellad said.

If they need to save money, Gellad emphasized that when patients are prescribed medicines, they should always ask their doctor if there is a generic alternative. “It’s the most important thing to do,” he said. “Often people don’t ask and they really should.”

Although patients may be shy about speaking with their doctors in regards to the financial burden of paying for medications, Wallid said they need to speak up. “We know that people, even the doctors, don’t like to talk about costs,” he continued. “But it’s of no use to the doctor or the patient, if the patient does not say anything.”

Interestingly, previous studies have shown that many, particularly African-Americans, have been greatly impacted by the high costs of medication.

In 2003, “a study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) revealed that African-American Medicare beneficiaries”:http://hschange.org/CONTENT/586/#tr1 who were 65 and older were more than twice as likely as elderly whites to not be able to afford to fill at least one prescription in the last year. Additionally, they also were more likely to live with certain chronic conditions — like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes — that usually require long-term prescription drug treatment

More recently, a study conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that African-Americans and single women were more likely than other groups to not be able to afford healthcare costs.

Thomas Loker, who is the author of The History and Evolution of Health Care in America: The Untold Backstory of Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, and Why Healthcare Needs Reform, said he’s not surprised that under deserved communities, like African-Americans, are turning to generic medications.

“From the underserved community’s perspective, generic drugs look great since they cost less and often need no co-pay,” Loker said.

Loker, who has worked on healthcare legislation, told theGrio that although generic medication is great for poorer groups, sometimes generic versions of needed medications are scarce, as the overall health care industry is experiencing a medicine shortfall. It has been found that of the medicines in short supply, 87 percent are generics.Generic drugs now make up almost 70 percent of all filled prescriptions, according to the Washington Post.

A generic drug is actually a copy of a brand-name drug. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a generic medication has to have the same active ingredients and quality as its similar brand-name drug.

The Director of the Medication Management Center and clinical assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, Kevin Boesen, said it’s important that people know generics are completely safe and effective to use. The only difference between generic and brand-name medications is their cost and the packaging.

“People need to realize that just because a medicine is generic, it doesn’t that it is less qualified than a brand name medicine,” Boesen, who is also a pharmacist, told theGrio.

Generic brands are as effective as brand-name drugs, save consumers money, and prevent the waste of billions of health care dollars.

For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimated a savings in 2007 of $33 billion for Medicare Part D and its beneficiaries through generic drugs.

Many consumers are saving money through generics due to the help of pharmacists. In fact, some states now mandate that pharmacists, like Boesen, have to deliver a generic version whenever available — even if the doctor has prescribed a brand name.

“Generics are something that we as pharmacists recommend and they are definitely a cost saving opportunity,” he told theGrio. “It will make a huge difference for patients to switch from brand name products. It can save consumers collectively hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Yet there are exceptions to this mandate. In some states, a doctor can still specifically request that a patient receive the brand name version by checking “dispense as written.”

Dr. Robert D. Rowley, who is the chief medical officer at Practice Fusion and owner aof Hayward Family Care, told theGrio that many times patients have to speak up, since physicians may not be aware of the costs of the prescriptions they prescribe.

“The physicians will often get samples of brand-name medications from the companies, and can give those to patients,” Rowley said. “If the patient responds well to the medication, then they can ask their doctor to continue it in the generic form.”

For the patients at his own practice, Rowley admitted to theGrio that the plummeting economy has definitely made healthcare costs even more of a burden.

“What I have seen in my own practice is that the question of generic versus brand-name is based on the health plan,” he asserted. “With the way the economy has gone, in my own practice I have seen a drop in my patients who are insured, because they no longer have employment and their plan went out the window.”

Although Rowley said recently there has been an uptick in the number of patients who are coming back to him, because they now have healthcare insurance to buy medication for less, the structure of America’s healthcare system and the availability of generic medication needs to change. The current scarcity of about 200 popular drugs, which are mostly generics, could harm those who depend on generics drugs to save.