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Byline: Evan Pondel Staff Writer

THOUSAND OAKS - WellPoint Health Networks Inc. said Monday that commercial members will receive a discount, and in some instances not be charged, for first-time use of several popular generic drugs.

Dubbed GenericSelect, WellPoint's new program provides employees with up to $10 off on a prescription when they are beginning a treatment regimen and opt for a generic drug. In some instances the copay will be waived, depending on benefit coverage.

The Thousand Oaks-based company, one of the nation's biggest health insurers, wants to reduce the cost of pricey prescriptions by subsidizing generic versions of popular medications like Prozac and Mevacor over their brand-name counterparts.

``There isn't a strong voice out there for generic drugs,'' said Robert Seidman, chief pharmacy officer for WellPoint. ``And now we're providing a voice for those drugs that have been overpowered by brand names.''

Consumers began hearing a similar voice last month when Claritin, the nation's most popular allergy drug, went on sale over the counter, in part because of a campaign by WellPoint. Claritin is a popular option among the insurer's members and WellPoint and other companies that have raised copayments on other brand-name allergy drugs.

WellPoint's latest move highlights a new strategy employed by an industry that has been inundated with soaring health care costs. Introduced as a boon for the consumer, GenericSelect also eases WellPoint's financial onus, Seidman said.

For every percentage point of its members that have switched to Lovastatin, a generic cholesterol-lowering drug, the company saves around $300,000 a year. So far, about 4 percent of WellPoint's members have made the switch.

Despite GenericSelect's intentions, Dr. Vincent Riccardi, president of La Crescenta-based American Medical Consumers, said people shouldn't go generic to simply save money.

``Expensive drugs are expensive for a reason,'' he said. ``Often they are different than the generic drug. One has to be careful that the equation fits.''

Of the 12 generic drugs available through GenericSelect, most target common indications including depression, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis pain. Riccardi said it is especially important to understand the difference in dosing of generics versus brand name labels.

``The practitioner is ultimately responsible for prescribing a brand- name drug instead of a generic product,'' he said. ``Enabling the consumer to make the choice between a brand-name drug and generic is laudable, but the discretion will ultimately be up to the doctors.''

WellPoint said members can receive GenericSelect drugs only when a physician considers it medically appropriate. Eligible members need to present an insurance identification card and the initial prescription of a GenericSelect drug to receive the discount.

A drug becomes available in generic form after the product's patent expires, allowing other companies to manufacture the same drug. Riccardi said that's why there are so many different versions of aspirin on the market.

For the insurer, generic labels are preferred because they usually aren't as expensive. And if the drug goes over the counter, the insurer no longer has to provide coverage.

Peter Costa, analyst with Leerink Swann & Company in Boston, said health insurers are always trying to find such mechanisms. ``But when an insurer is trying to save its members and itself money, I thinks it's always a positive,'' Costa said. ``In this market you have to do things that help control costs.''

WellPoint shares declined $1.12 to close at $72.53 Monday on the New York Stock Exchange.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 7, 2003

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