Thanks to a tidal wave of brand-name drugs losing patent protection — among them popular medications such as cholesterol-reducing Zocor, antihypertensive Toprol-XL and antidepressant Zoloft — more generics are available than ever before. Kristin Begley of benefits consultant Hewitt Associates says that $60 billion worth of brand-name drugs are coming off patent in the next three years.

And that means savings for you. Switching to a generic drug could save you up to 80 percent per prescription refill.

Even if your medication hasn't gone generic yet, you're not out of luck. Ask your doctor if you can substitute a similar generic drug in the same therapeutic class. The most common conditions — high cholesterol, depression, allergies and diabetes — all have generics available, says Ron Fontanetta, a principal at benefits-consulting firm Towers Perrin.

Because generics cost less on the retail side, your employer may offer more generous prescription coverage for them. Company plans that still require co-payments commonly charge $10 to $40 for prescriptions, with generics the least expensive and nonpreferred brands the most expensive. By switching from a nonpreferred brand to a generic, you could save $30 in a snap.

Even if your employer now provides co-insurance — meaning that the insurer pays as much as 80 percent of a drug's cost and you pick up the rest — the savings can be substantial. For example, Lipitor, a widely used cholesterol reducer, costs $82 for a 30-day supply at Drugstore.com; you'd pay 20 percent of the cost, or $16.40. But a similar generic drug costs $28; you'd pay just $5.60, saving you an additional 66 percent.

Some companies are making the switch to generic drugs more enticing by offering extra incentives, such as tiered co-insurance rates — say, 80 percent for generics but just 50 percent for brand-name medicines. Reducing the co-insurance on Lipitor from 80 percent to 50 percent makes using a generic substitute even more attractive.

If you still need an incentive to switch from a brand-name drug, here it is: generics for $4. Wal-Mart and its warehouse retailer, Sam's Club, started the ball rolling in 2006, offering 30-day supplies of some drugs for just $4. The program has expanded to more than 360 medications.

Rival Target has a $4 drug program that includes 315 medications; Walgreens offers 90-day supplies of some 300 generics for $12.99. One regional grocery chain, Giant Eagle, now offers 400 generic drugs for $4. Meijer, another regional chain, offers seven common antibiotics free. Missing in action? Big names CVS and Rite Aid.


Jessica Anderson is staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com.