| Thu, Mar 03, 2016 @ 09:00 AM

Ask a Pharmacist: Generic vs. Brand-Name Drugs

Posted by Medicare Made Clear

pharmacyInformation about your medications from UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement Chief Pharmacy Officer Mike Anderson, Pharm.D.

Question: I’ve heard that it may not be a good idea to choose generic drugs over brand-name drugs. Is that true?

Answer: In the most recent “Ask a Pharmacist” article, we talked about ways to save on your prescription drugs. One way I mentioned you can save is to switch from brand-name prescription drugs to their generic equivalents. However, the topic of generic drugs can be a confusing one to lots of people. So let’s talk some more about them here.

There’s this perception that brand-name anything is “better” than something that’s generic. After all, you’ve probably heard it said that “you get what you pay for,” right? However, when it comes to prescription drugs, this simply isn’t true.

First of all, what is a generic drug?

A generic drug is a copy of a brand-name drug. It’s identical to the brand-name drug in dosage, strength, safety, performance and use. Both prescription and non-prescription drugs can have generic versions. Generic drugs are also generally sold under their chemical name without any advertising.

But are generic and brand-name drugs REALLY the same?

For an answer to that question, let’s turn to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the FDA. The FDA regulates the pharmaceutical industry, which includes the approval and manufacture of generic drugs. To gain FDA approval, a generic drug has to:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the brand name drug (though inactive ingredients can vary).
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form and the way it’s administered.
  • Have the same indications for use.
  • Have the same effect on the body.
  • Meet the same manufacturing batch requirements for identity, strength, purity and quality.
  • Be manufactured under the same strict manufacturing practice standards.

So the answer is YES: FDA-approved generic drugs meet the same standards as the brand-name drugs they were created to duplicate. Also, keep in mind that all generic drugs go through a rigorous review process before they’re approved by the FDA. In addition, the FDA inspects manufacturing plants and checks quality, even after a generic drug is approved.

But the generic version of one of my drugs looks different than the brand-name version.

That’s right! They do look different. In fact, U.S. trademark laws state that generic drugs must look different from their brand-name counterparts. A generic can be any color, size or shape, as long as it doesn’t look exactly like the brand-name drug.

But it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Generics have the same type and amount of active ingredients as the brand-name drug. Many are even manufactured by the same company that makes the brand-name drug.

What’s the process for generic drugs coming to market?

In most cases, generic drugs are available once the patent protections afforded to the developer of the original brand-name drug have expired. The time it takes a generic drug to appear on the market varies. In most countries of the world, patents give the original owners 20 years of protection, but sometimes it’s longer.

Why are generic drugs usually so much cheaper than their brand-name equivalents?

One reason for the relatively low price of generic drugs is that competition increases among producers when drugs no longer are protected by patents. When multiple companies introduce a generic drug, the market competition often leads to much lower prices for that drug.

However, there’s also much lower cost in producing generic drugs in the first place. Companies that create a new drug need to pay high costs for initial development and testing, long before they may see any profit. They also bear the burden of proving that the drug works and is safe in several stages of costly clinical trials. But the companies producing the generic versions of that same drug don’t have to repeat the clinical studies to prove the drug works. A generic manufacturer only needs to show that their product matches the brand-name drug in order to receive approval.

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about generic medications that could save you money.

Your annual wellness visit is a great time to do a medication review with your doctor. Go through all the prescription drugs you’re taking to see whether there might be any cheaper generic versions available. And when your doctor prescribes you a new drug, make sure to check if it has a generic version, and if your doctor thinks the generic would work for you.

Keep in mind that not every brand-name drug has a generic equivalent. Also, generic drugs are usually but not always cheaper; make sure to check the drug’s cost, or its drug tier on your Medicare Part D prescription drug plan formulary. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you understand what drugs are available and whether a generic may be right for you based on your needs.

This Medicare Made Clear blog post is part of the ongoing “Ask a Pharmacist” series, which addresses common questions about prescription drugs and other medications. Read other articles in this series for more answers to your questions on medication.

For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.


Medicare Part D Coverage – Prescription Drug Plans: Check out this section of the Medicare Made Clear website, complete with a video on Part D.

Medicare & You: The U.S. government’s official Medicare handbook, available online.

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