Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin has put forward a series of measures aimed at cutting health costs by at least SFr86 million ($65.5 million) a year.
Supported by the government, the plans will encourage people to choose generic drugs over brand products. Those wanting the original drug will have to dig deeper into their pockets.
Couchepin told a news conference in Bern on Wednesday that about SFr60 million in savings could be made on laboratory tests.
These were cheaper nowadays thanks to new methods of testing.
He added that a further SFr26 million could be saved by health insurance companies in the choice of medicinal products used in the diagnosis and treatment of an illness.
Couchepin said that from next year, unless there was a valid medical reason, patients who had prescriptions for brand drugs rather than generics would have to pay 20 per cent of the drug's cost.
At present the patient's contribution to an original drug is ten per cent of the cost.
The patient's contribution to the cost of the generic drug will be maintained at ten per cent.
In either case, the patient will not have to pay more than SFr700 per year.
Couchepin said this was a first step to encourage the use of generic products, adding that it was socially acceptable because a doctor could continue to prescribe an original drug if it were necessary.
Some patients could be negatively affected by a change to a generic drug.
Couchepin said he was counting on the economic rationale of the measure. A patient would put pressure on the doctor to prescribe a generic drug knowing that an original drug would cost more.
But he admitted that the savings made by the introduction of the measure were difficult to evaluate.
Consumer groups and doctors associations have criticised the proposals.
Jacqueline Bachmann of the main consumers' group called the 20 per cent charge for brand drugs an "affront" because it made the patient responsible for what the doctor had prescribed. She would rather see doctors being obliged to prescribe generic drugs.
The Swiss Patients Association said it would prefer for doctors to prescribe the active ingredient but that the choice of generics or branded drugs be made in the pharmacy.
For its part, the main doctors' association said that it supported the increased use of generic drugs, but criticised Couchepin for making a decision without consultation.
The pharmaceutical industry's lobby group, Interpharma, added that the 20 per cent rule disadvantaged branded drugs, especially ones that were not any more expensive than their generic counterparts.
At the beginning of next year, Couchepin is to send out for consultation a second set of measures to try to stem health costs.
These include a reduction of the reserves held by health insurance companies, payment for treatment carried out abroad and a reduction in the cost of drugs.
Earlier this year, the federal authorities and the pharmaceutical industry reached a deal which should cut drugs prices by at least SFr250 million a year from 2006.
swissinfo with agencies
SFr26 million will be saved on payments by the health insurance companies for products used in diagnostics and the treatment of an illness.
SFr60 million will be saved by lower costs for a total of 1,500 medical tests.
A more general use of generics is another source of savings, but these are hard to quantify.
Health costs in Switzerland have been spiralling upwards in recent years. In 2003, they represented 11.5% of Gross Domestic Product, compared with 9.7% in 1995 and 8% in 1985.
Health spending amounted to SFr6,736 per inhabitant in 2003, representing a total cost of almost SFr50 billion.
As a result, health insurance premiums have been rising every year and have become unaffordable for many people.