Generic or Brand Name Drugs: Which Are Best?
Nearly 80 percent of all prescriptions are filled with generics. Learn how the less expensive version of your drugs can work for you.

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Generic or Brand Name Drugs: Which Are Best?

Thanks to advertising campaigns, there's a good chance you've heard of brand-name medications to treat high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis or to prevent blood clots.

But you'll likely see those advertisements less often, or not at all. These drugs, and many other high-profile brand name pharmaceuticals, have lost or are set to lose their patents between now and 2015. That means they can be made as generics.

What does that mean for the consumer? If a generic version of a brand-name drug becomes available, pharmacists will fill a prescription with the less-expensive generic. Doctors or patients can always request the brand-name medication, but insurance may or may not cover it.

Currently, nearly 80 percent of prescriptions are filled with generic drugs. To figure out how much you have to pay for certain drugs, contact your insurance provider for the prescription portion of your plan.

Other than cost, the differences between brand-name medicine and generics should be minimal, says Heather Free, Pharm.D, a Washington, D.C.-based pharmacist and representative of the American Pharmacist Association.

"There has been an increase of generics in the market recently," she says. "But the fear of taking a generic over a brand-name drug has always been around."

That the fear is unfounded, she says. "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes sure generics are equivalent to brand-name drugs."

The FDA requires that all generics have the same "active ingredient, strength, dosage form and route of administration" as the brand-name version. But there may be small variations in manufacturing or inactive ingredients. Generic pills are also required to look different from the brand-name equivalent.

Free says she understands why people still may be hesitant to make the switch.

"We are creatures of habit," she says. "When something works, we can be afraid to change."

When a generic becomes available, it is important for consumers to communicate with their pharmacists, she says.

"When I get a call from a patient that says, ‘This brand of generic isn't working,' I understand that might be true," she says. "People are all so different. Someone might have a reaction to the inactive ingredient in the generic. In that case, we might have to try a different brand of generic."

Free suggests asking your pharmacist to try the generic made by the company that made the brand-name version. Not all companies continue to make drugs in generic form, but many do. In that case, the brand-name and generic formulas will theoretically be the same.

Free also suggests looking at the medication before leaving the pharmacy to make sure it is the correct medication. Patients should share any concerns with their pharmacist. In fact, everyone should always check their medication before they leave the pharmacy.

Once they start the new generic, patients should monitor changes that might be a reaction to an ingredient. If it isn't working or if you have other concerns, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 09/05/2012
Updated on 10/09/2012
  • United States Food and Drug Administration. Facts about generic drugs.
  • United States Food and Drug Administration. Generic drugs: Questions and answers.
  • Federal Trade Commission. Generic drugs: Saving money at the pharmacy.
  • Government Accountability Office. Research on savings from generic drug use.
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